This most illustrious of anime intellectual properties has a legacy stretching back to 1974, through various series and OVA spells. The Space Battleship Yamato is as influential in Japan as Star Trek is throughout the world; its importance is stellar to Japanese audiences. Now receiving its first run on UK shores through the Manga label, the live action Space Battleship Yamato adds its take to this eminent legacy. For those who are unfamiliar with the Japanese legend, SBY takes place in a futuristic earth where mankind has been besieged by roaming aliens, turning the surface into an irradiated wasteland, driving man underground. Mysteriously receiving plans from far outside of the Solar System the last space battleship, the Yamato is heads out as humanity’s last hope.
Even if Japan isn’t known for orthodox sci-fi, films like this just aren’t made anymore by anyone. Science Fiction has become more earth-bound in recent times, bombastic invasions and now low-key dystopia has informed the recent background on this well-established genre. You have to travel back to the 1970s and 80s to find films even remotely close to what director Takashi Yamazaki has done here. Without getting stuck in the mires of retro-fetishism and rose-tinted nostalgia, there just isn’t anything for audiences who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars.
As far as the plot goes, simplicity is the prime concern. With space travel, air fights and do or die moments for the crew, there is no pretension to be anything more. It has dramatically powerful moments, such as the crew leaving the solar system and the fatalistic messages they leave their families. But for every dramatically powerful moment, there is another that completely negates the strength of the spectacle by poorly framing the scene. There is an example of this when the Yamato first fires an alien supergun attached to its front, with the script edited a little more closely this scene would actually mean something. The script is littered with these niggling oversights.
Nevertheless Takashi Yamazaki has made an enjoyably simply sci-fi adventure in Space Battleship Yamato. Most of the stand out qualities of which are found in the more design-centric departures. The design of the Yamato fleet is something to marvel at with a perspective divorced from the anime. The marriage between World War II like ocean-liners and early twentieth century jet fighters, only in space, never fails to cut a fascinating image. Inside the ship too, the production design is scintillating. When battle scenes are a plenty, the thrill of seeing these machines in action raises in kind. The design is something to marvel at when it’s simple. When actors are placed next to computer generated content it brings about an issue that has blighted Japanese cinema for as long as CGI has been a thing, they are both at odds with each other, neither look real when put next to each other.
Brilliantly designed and a blast from the past for a genre of cinema more concerned with broad mass market fluff, Space Battleship Yamato will be defined most by its two biggest problems. The first is only an issue if Yamato is new to you, and that is the script makes the most minimal concessions to be accessible to people new to the story. This isn’t an issue in its native Japan, but here in the UK, the script alludes to a story bigger than is allowed in the 2 hour run time. The way the cast behave around one character suggests he is a major character, yet the film doesn’t allow him the screen time for this to be read as a given. Another character is a steady staple of anime, but acted out on camera, it’s a little weird. But to call this a problem isn’t entirely fair, if the film fails to engage, then it’s a failure. But if the Yamato’s plight for survival grips and entertains, the film suggests at a greater galaxy to explore. This film is only an introduction to a series running all the way back to Leiji Matsumoto’s Manga in the early 1970s.
The other problem is another one that jumps over from the anime industry, and that is the melodrama. The ridiculous allowance given to the melodrama in the last five minutes completely negates any stakes the scene had until that point. When a film can be a simple in the small moments, like those between Tsutomu Yamazaki (Captain Okita) and Takuya Kimura (Kodai Susumu) or the departure from the solar system, it begs why it’s necessary to go big in such a reductive way.
Even with its over-reliance on the source text and lax script editing, it’s the simple fun of Space Battleship Yamato that makes it worthy of recommendation. Yamazaki has directed an unashamedly old-fashion space adventure that’ll make anyone who grew up with laser guns or Millennium Falcon’s into a nostalgia coated delirium while simultaneously opening the door to a whole new galaxy to explore.