Review: Space Battleship Yamato (live action – 2010)

2010’s live action version of Space Battleship Yamato does something that most reboots / remakes don’t.  It shows the flaws in the original.  Like many video game sequels and very few film sequels, this Yamato is a geometric progression above its humble source material.  Yes, the original SBY is beloved by many anime fans, but it was a good TV series, not a good movie.  This film takes that story and makes it into the movie I always wanted to see.

If you saw my review of the SBY animated film, you know that I grew up watching Star Blazers, the dubbed and recut version of the SBY series.  I loved it but I found the SBY animated film wanting.  Some of the later animated films were actually made for theatrical distribution, but since the original was little more than reassembled pieces of the series, I felt that it fell short.  Way short.  I thought that the seminal voyage of the Yamato and her gallant crew deserved better.

In 2010 I heard that the live action Yamato film was finally on its way, but I’d seen enough bad CGI in Japanese films to know that it was better to not get too excited.  The first trailer that showed up on YouTube confirmed my suspicions.  The captain looked somewhat frail under his fake beard and Kodai looked a little too hipsterish for his own good.  Still, the sets and effects looked better than I expected.  I was still reserving judgement.

Well, I finally got to see the subtitled film recently and I have to admit that my reservations were unfounded.  The film, as a whole, is a resounding success.  The cast and crew somehow managed to channel the emotions I felt watching Star Blazers on TV as a kid.  Some of that is due to a strong score that’s punctuated by bits and pieces of the original Yamato tunes, but most of it is due to the fact that the filmmakers weren’t afraid to embrace the enthusiasm that makes all the incarnations of Yamato great.

If Hollywood had made this picture, they’d have crammed the scenes on Earth full of dark and desperate images.  The crew of the Yamato would have sunk deeper and deeper into their own emotional sess pools every step of the way.  The Hollywood machine would have been afraid to include the core themes that make the Yamato story unique in the world of sci fi.  The  joy of service, even the joy of giving one’s life for a cause, is a very Japanese idea that permeates the film.  Yes, Kodai is more rebellious in this version, but I think that indicates the changes that have taken place in Japanese society over the thirty years since the original Yamato series.

I was surprised by the film’s similarity to Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, but I shouldn’t have been.  The original Yamato series has served as a source of inspiration for countless properties, including Star Wars and Moore’s Galactica.  The SBY series and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, from the same creative team, both present their space forces as navies, right down to the captain’s uniforms which are adorned with anchors.  This is very close to Moore’s concept for the Galactica reboot, and not dissimilar to Nick Meyer’s version of Star Trek.  In the new Yamato film, that inspiration has come full circle, with Galactica’s production design clearly influencing this production.  Lighting, set design, cinematography and effects all show the influence of Moore’s Galactica.  I should add that this isn’t a bad thing on any level and clearly reinforces the concepts of the original show.

There have been modifications to the original SBY story line, and most of them work.  Unlike many “reboots” that try to one up a property than most consider to be a touchstone of cinema (like Zatoichi), this time the writers were laboring to fix a flawed masterpiece.  Yes, the original story was a great one, but what made it great wasn’t its plot.  It was its characters and concepts.  Those have remained intact here.  I wasn’t thrilled with the new ending but I have to admit that it fits into the gestalt of Yamatos past.  If this had been a Hollywood picture, this ending would have never seen the light of day.  It’s refreshing on that level even if it disappointed me.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough.  If you’re already a fan of Yamato, it’s a no brainer.  If not, I think you’ll find it a very entertaining introduction.

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