Wednesday 29 July 2020

Anime REVIEW: Space Battleship Yamato 2199

Space Battleship Yamato 2199

It’s impossible to overstate just how influential Space Battleship Yamato is. Both setting the standard and paving the way for future sci-fi anime, the 1974 series by Yoshinobu Nishizaki and Leiji Matsumoto touches nearly every faucet of how the medium is perceived and functions today - from its American dub adaptation Starblazers being instrumental in bringing anime to worldwide audience to its fandom being an integral part in the early days of cosplay. Some have even cited it as a huge influence on the original Star Wars. But while its influence has never dwindled, the combination of distribution and the perpetual cycle of newer shows means its legacy isn’t always recognised as much as it should be. However between 2012 to 2013 the landmark series saw a tremendous return to form under the guise of a brand new remake, Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Originally released as seven cinematic films, it was then later transformed into a 26-episode series - eventually releasing in the West once again with its Starblazers monicker (only this time without any significant dub changes).

Hope from outer spaceThe Yamato crew

In the year 2199, humanity is on the brink of extinction after making contact with an alien race known as the Gamilas. Following an interstellar war that’s lasted nearly eight years, the Gamilas have bombarded Earth in attempt to destroy the planet’s biosphere and wipe out its population. Humanity’s last hope comes from the planet Iscandar, who despatched an envoy to Earth after learning of their situation. Iscandar promises a Cosmo Reverse System which can undo the damage the Gamilas have caused, leaving humanity with plans for interstellar flight so that they may come and receive it.

With only 365 days until extinction, the crew of the Yamato travel to the far reaches of the cosmos with one mission - collect the Cosmo Reverse System from Iscandar and return home. But along the way they face the wrath of the Gamilas and their despotic ruler Abelt Dessler, as well as many other complications that could jeopardise the Yamato’s mission.

Admiral Juzo OkitaAbelt Dessler

Adapting a then near 40 year old property is never an easy task, especially when the aim should be to present a worthy update to the original that fixes any datedness without losing what made it so special in the first place. The original Space Battleship Yamato may be legendary, but for a modern audience it’s not without its problems. A single female crew member whose sexual harassment is a main source of comedy is perhaps the most glaring, but there’s also the simplicity in which the show presented its villains and unexplained continuity issues (such as the Gamilas’ skin changing blue after a few episodes to make them more alien). These are all issues that Yamato 2199 takes to heart right from the get-go, significantly upping its female cast through both new characters and gender swaps (pilot Akira Yamamoto was male in the original). Those odd continuity quirks become huge pieces of Yamato lore, with the Gamilas now integrating other races into their ranks and then looking down on them as second-class citizens. The template the original set shouldn’t be overlooked, but immediately these changes make Yamato 2199 a richer experience more open to dissection and palatable to modern audiences. Both new and old flow together seamlessly, and even for newcomers it’s clear just how much influence Yamato has had.

True to the original's template, Yamato 2199 is a largely episodic series where the crew encounter a new problem on their long journey to Iscandar. Whilst there are naturally ongoing plot elements that run throughout the course of the show, most episodes can be looked at as their own individual stories that capture a different element of the overall package - whether it be a glorious space battle, a rich sci-fi plot or a deeper character study. Some episodes are action-packed, while others are much slower and personal pieces. As a space opera it’s as much character drama as it is a sci-fi epic, and the format of the storytelling combined with its heavy military aesthetic (the Yamato itself is based on the real-life battleship after all) has an unmistakably classic feel.

Susumu KodaiYuki Mori

Part of what makes Yamato 2199 work so well is the drive to make it feel like an ensemble piece. While there shouldn’t be any doubt that tactician Susumu Kodai is the main hero of the story and that his growing relationship with fellow crew member Yuki Mori is central to this, all of the key characters are given the opportunity to develop with their own individual storylines as well. Even Analyzer, the ship’s obligatory robot, gets an Asimov-inspired episode where it befriends a reprogrammed Gamilan android and the philosophy of artificial intelligence is explored. The much-needed gender balancing creates a much more believable crew, where everyone now has a purpose aboard the Yamato and no one is a catch-all hero. While there’s no denying that Yamato has retained some element of fanservice with its skin tight uniforms, none of the female cast are defined by that. They all have their own stories and agency, and if anything come out as some of the more memorable characters because of it. Backstories intertwine and develop in interesting ways, and the story gives way to some surprise twist and turns that show friction within the crew itself.

The same level of care has also gone in to making the show's villains as interesting as possible. The aforementioned addition of classism and race integration adds great depth to Gamilas society even though the surface is barely scratched on the topic, leaving plenty of scope for further backstory as well as the audience wanting more. While the Nazi imagery is particularly heavy when it comes the high ranking members of their forces, in many instances the show also makes a point of presenting them as more than just obstacles for the Yamato to overcome - complicating their characters through either family ties or strict senses of honour. Even Dessler, a character who is repeatedly shown to be largely reprehensible, oozes charisma and the hint that he wasn't always the monster we see onscreen. Between this and the political struggles that evolve further on in the series, the Gamilas establish themselves as proper characters in their own right and further enhance the space opera element of the series.

Lieutenant Commander Shiro SanadaThe Gamilas

Given that the series was originally made with theatrical presentation in mind it shouldn't be any surprise to hear that Yamato 2199 looks absolutely gorgeous. Whether you agree with it or not, dated animation is often the biggest hurdle when it comes to newer anime fans checking out older shows so Yamato getting this sort of lavish production is the best thing that could have happened to it. The overall presentation remains crisp and consistent despite the change in animation studios midway through, with AIC having animated the first ten episodes (films one to three) and Xebec carrying on for the remaining sixteen (films four to seven). Despite the blackness of space and the naval grey of the Yamato itself, Yamato 2199 is an extremely vibrant production with impressive attention to both colour and detail. The overuse of CGI on a 2D production can sometimes be to its detriment, but Yamato's grandiose battle sequences far outclass productions that have since succeeded it. The character designs have been updated, but only in so much they'll fit the slicker aesthetic - Leiji Matsumoto's obvious styling is still very much intact. 

There are many aspects to Yamato 2199 that contribute to its old school feel, but without a doubt the biggest one of all is its soundtrack. From the second its opening theme, that of the original series still sung by Isao Sasaki, hits the mood is immediately captured. The score is also heavily influenced by the original,  fittingly composed by Akira Miyagawa - the son of the original Yamato's composer Hiroshi. Each episode with a full vocal song that's almost cinematic in its own right, which for audiences experiencing it as a 26-episode series gives a glimpse to the kind of grandeur Yamato 2199 must have had when watched on the silver screen.

The Yamato in battleGamilas ships

Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is a near-flawless exercise in how to do a modern adaptation of a classic series correctly. The grand space opera framework that spawned a thousand imitators remains intact, and with the improvements brought about by deeper storytelling and modern animation improvements it has never looked or felt better. While it may be hard to measure up to the legacy that the original series has left, Yamato 2199 tried with all guns blazing and the end result is truly a spectacle to behold. As something that'll wow both longtime Yamato fans and newcomers alike, this really is essential anime viewing.


Oar said...

2013 almost feels vintage in of itself! Did you only recently looked into the franchise? Either way, your glowing review here has definitely made me interested.

Alex said...

Yep! A friend has been pestering me to check it out for ages so I finally gave it a shot and did not regret it.

Chewidogcheese said...

Hi I just sent you an email do you know if it is or isn't? I'm really worried.

Daniel said...

I grew up on Star Blazers, the English adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato, and was thrilled to see this updated version of a beloved series. Everything you said is accurate, and as someone who loved the original animation, I found this updated edition to be everything I loved about the original, only more so. The storytelling is top notch and the updates truly enhanced and enriched the story.

Great review! Spot on!