Review: Space Battleship Yamato (animated – 1977)

The Yamato TV series is near and dear to my heart.  As a teenager, I would rush home to catch the American version of the series, Star Blazers, every day after school.  My brother and I watched religiously, eager to see what would happen to the Yamato (Star Blazers called it the Argo) and it’s valiant crew on the way to Iscandar or battling the Comet Empire.  Later, when I lived in Atlanta, I bought  Japanese books on the series including a couple containing animation cels that I still have.  That’s why it pains me to say that the first “movie”, Space Battleship Yamato, thoroughly sucks as a film.

Over the years, I’d avoided the first couple of Yamato films because I was told that they were basically retellings of the series I’d already seen, so this was my very first viewing.  Sadly, SBY-the film, consists almost entirely of footage from the failed first season of the series.  That’s right.  Animation that was built to be seen in standard def 4:3 was edited, a stinky narration was slapped on, and they had the balls to call it a movie!  What makes it even worse is the fact that conventional wisdom has it that this movie outsold the original Star Wars in Japan.  While that may or may not be true, story material that was originally spread across 26 half-hour episodes has no business being crushed into a 130 minute movie.

The story’s pretty simple.  Earth has been destroyed by radiation and is under attack.  The ancient sea battleship Yamato is rebuilt with the awesome awesomeness of the Wave Motion Engine and is sent to the distant planet Iscandar to retrieve the solution to Earth’s problems and defeat the attacking planet, Gamilas, along the way.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Well, I loved the TV series’ trip to Iscandar to get the Cosmo DNA but condensing it creates an incomprehensible mess.  At a couple of critical junctures, the Yamato is virtually destroyed only to be completely rebuilt in the very next shot.  What the what?  How’d they do that?  How could anyone accept it the way it’s presented in this “film” unless they’d already seen the series?  This mess is basically a Cliff’s Notes version of the series in much the same way that Order of the Phoenix is a Cliff’s Notes version of the Harry Potter novel.  It simply does not work on its own.  The story ends up being a random conglomeration of events and it holds no emotional weight whatsoever.

The production values are hit and miss.  The animation was groundbreaking for television at the time, but it certainly wouldn’t hold up on the big screen.  However, the Japanese voice actors are very good, as is the music and sound design.  Sure, some of the sound work is hackneyed, but this was made in the early seventies.  Those cliches were built back then, so I cut them some slack.  Like I said, season one of the series was phenomenal, so the production work is sound.  It just wasn’t meant to be hacked together this way.  Imagine if season one of the new Battlestar Galactica series were turned into a feature film with most of the key moments intact and you’ll get the idea.

I understand that a live action version of SBY was premiered in Japan in 2010.  I can’t wait to see it because it was conceived as a feature.  If you can’t wait for the live action film, I’d suggest checking out Be Forever Yamato, the first in the animated series to be made for theatrical release.  SBY should be avoided like the Gamilas plague.

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