After nearly a year of theatrical releases (which are continuing as of this date), as well as sell-out launches on home media, Yutaka Izibuchi’s big budget update of Uchu Senkan Yamato has finally come to broadcast screens via MBS(Mainichi Broadcasting System). A penultimate evergreen of televised and theatrical anime, the classic space epic has seen itself celebrated and reinvented more than once before, but never with such grandeur, and such a sense of momentum this side of the original movie releases that began back in the summer of 1977. It’s safe to say that I have been following to the best of my ability, the parade and anticipation of this particular run as the original series remains centrally important to my own interest in anime as a medium, and as a lover of classical science fiction. Not unlike globally acclaimed phenomena such as Lord Of The Rings, or even Star Wars, the tale of Yamato’s great gamble to save the blue Earth is possibly Japan’s most universal, and even perhaps most personal legend brought to cel animation. So it goes without saying that in this era of a jazzed-up Star Trek, a few words would inevitably have to be shared about this update.
So what I propose, is not a simple episodic review column. But more like an overview of episode clusters, where this new legend can be seen with fresher eyes, without the ever present spectre of the original series hovering over. We’ll be giving impressions on the series in the format in which they were shown to audiences in Japanese theatres. As an enduring lover of the original, it feels only appropo that we peer into this alternate telling of the search for Iscandar as one would look at how a modern artist would pay tribute/respond to a legendary painter, or even musician. With openness to new voices, and a reverence for what the current world has to offer a familiar mythology. The original Yoshinobu Nishizaki/Leiji Matsumoto saga will always be, but Yamato:2199 must stand on its very own, and to that, let us commence.
The last time I had written a little on the series, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was more overcome by the sheer magnitude of the event. It’s fair to say that for me, it was something of an oasis to consider the return of Captain Okita, and his gallant crew to the animated world. So what I hope to do, is to do away with mere nostalgia clouding my sight, and just call it as a singular new event all its own.
For those unfamiliar, Yamato weaves the saga of an ongoing mission by a select number of brave souls tasked with taking a once lost battleship deep into space in hopes of saving Earth from relentless radiation attacks by the fearsome alien force known only as Gamilas. Their only lead, an alien transmission, offering plans for a device capable of cleaning the planet’s surface. The only problems? Distance versus time. Roughly one hundred days remain before certain ahnilation, and the Gamilas armadas aren’t letting the intrepid crew of the Yamato have an easy time of seeking the planet, Iscandar. The place in which the humanity’s apparent salvation resides. It is in the determined spirit of one Captain Okita, and the fortitude of his diverse & largely youthful crew, that what remains of the human race must depend. But the journey is fraught with perils and unknowns. Worse yet, time is running out.
The story begins..
Episode 1: Messenger From Iscandar
Opening at the Second Battle Of Mars, where we are thrust headlong into the conflict which gives us our first glimpse of the aging captain, his relationship with one Captain Mamoru Kodai, and the fate of the Yukikaze. The confidence in which this opener establishes itself is the kind of surehandedness that is often rare by anime TV standards, and deserves recognition, even if it seems on the surface as simple and atypical of an establishment scene. So much is employed here, that it’s very apparent that this project is looking to be remembered as a labor of love. The almost old-fashioned romance of naval conflict is paid tribute as the Gamiras advance takes its toll on the human forces, leading certain characters toward what seems to be an inevitable conclusion. Taking an almost cel-animation aim toward the CG makes for an interesting marriage of schools that leaves both good and not so good impressions. (which I’ll get to later) The drama of the sequence is only made more potent by knowing that the real purpose of this battle is in the name of a mission in order to retrieve a message from an alien emissary.
Young officer, Susumu Kodai, and his optimistic buddy Daisuke Shima are on the surface of Mars, awaiting first contact while unbeknownst to them, the UN Cosmo forces keep the enemy at bay above. Even as Kodai and Shima find themselves capable of merely retrieving the message, the female alien ambassador was unable to survive her ship’s descent from space. Compounding matters, is the revelation that Kodai is unaware that his elder brother , the captain of the Yukikaze, is on the verge of meeting with destiny. Lives and discoveries converge, and a mild glimmer of hope for a dying planet finally seems within reach. That is, if the younger Kodai can keep his composure toward longtime veteran, Okita regarding the fate of the Yukikaze. Instantly, we have a classic father/son conflict amidst this galaxy-spanning conflict, and we have a shining tribute to anime at its most romantic.
The initial episode has quite a deal to lay out for viewers, and for the most part it gels tremendously by weaving heavy animation detail with impeccable writing and direction. While perhaps not the kind of storytelling more current anime fans may be accustomed to, its pretty refreshing to experience an A to B story executed in such a deft manner. It’s all deceptively simplistic, and yet that’s something most appropriate for such a tale. With effective speed, we are given glimpses into the world, while offering up classic character archetypes and conflicts with equal ease. If anyone gets short shrift in this initial episode, it is perhaps the role of Yuki Mori, who is now of greater import in the chain of command. Turns out they resorted toward making her yet into yet another quasi-tsunderoid, which is kind of a shame. It’s a mild misstep that could be rectified in future installments, but it kind of stands out as a bit of a step-forward-step-back for a character that deserves a just a little more complexity.
In all, Messenger is a solidly executed pilot episode that dodges the many pratfalls that to this day dog most initial installments.
Episode 2: Toward A Sea Of Stars..
Upon discovering that the Gamilas have been reconning the Earth for what seems to be the remains of a long-ago sunken battleship, it is not long before all eyes turn to the hulking Yamato as the one last possible savior for the once blue planet and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, on Pluto..military leaders of the Gamilas have their worries confirmed, and chart a course to destroy the newly dusted off and retrofitted Space Battleship before it even leaves the ground. Meanwhile, the mission begins as we learn that the deceased alien ambassador Starsha left with the humans, a message containing their offering of salvation lying 168,000 light years away, within the Large Magellanic Cloud–The planet, Iscandar. Another revelation is dropped upon us that Starsha had originally sent her sister, Yurisha a year prior in secret with plans for the Dimensional Wave Motion Engine, to be used within one specially fitted space cruiser, good enough to handle the difficult voyage ahead.
Thus, the long ballyhooes Izumo Plan suddenly transitions into..The Yamato Plan.
Yes. Exposition heavy, and plot-obsession is on call for Sea Of Stars, which gives us an even better glance at who will become our respective crew members, and their positions with impressive brevity. There’s clearly so much to be told in this telling, that it becomes expected that things would be rushing toward the manning of the ship, and as such, we only spend so much time with even major characters at this point. Kodai & Shima are tapped as important personnel, while we get more of a clearer look at the diversity, and breadth of those who have loved ones staying behind. If there is any real trouble with this episode, it’s that it never gives enough temerity to how desperate the situation is on a more personal level. The crew just needs to assemble and get going, so we get often all-too-brief looks at family members who’s lives will be hanging in the balance. Worthy of note, we get our first real moments with Engineering Head, the old-fashioned Tokugawa, and Science Chief & Second In Command, Sanada (Who remains a favorite in the original,btw), and we do get another quiet moment between Kodai and Okita before things start intensifying again as the Gamilas attempt to stop the Yamato from beginning its mission.
In summation for this one, there is simply so much foundation to lay out before launch. And that’s kind of amazing that it works at all.
Episode 3: Escaping The Mars Sphere
After proving its mettle on the ground, the Yamato and her crew are quickly faced with staunch resistance by the Gamilas as they make their first attempts at warp speed, leading them into a trap. A trap called Jupiter.
Shooting face first into pure business, action and heart..Mars Sphere is pretty much classic space opera of the first order. With the crew knowing full well that their gift from Iscandar must be used to its fullest potential, they are also mostly young and unsure of what to do with their newfound power. On one hand, we have the abiltity to achieve Faster Than Light travel, which can allow them to reach Iscandar in under (hopefully) one earth year. And on the other, which comes at the latter half of the episode, they also have in their grasp, a weapon of terrifying power. On top of all of this, we are given a brief look into the world of the Gamilas, and the reality that not everything in this conflict is as simple as rudimentary good vs. evil.
It’s a pretty busy episode that eases nicely into an old school quest series format by offering up equal doses of action and exposition, topped with a great understanding of the sentiments that made the original so powerful. We finally see what the Yamato is truly capable of in more than one way, which offers up some more than welcome subtext as the cast fills out a few more new vital spaces in the crew. We are better introduced to Technology Department head, Niimi, who’s vital to this episodes expositional needs, doles out the science of FTL travel, while the clearly pilot-like Yamamoto is deferred to an accounting desk (in a half-clever setup for future episodes). We even finally get our first real meeting with the IQ-9 robotic unit most affectionately known as Analyzer, a plucky, often humanlike machine with a deep need to prove his worth on the ship. Once the Yamato completes their first jump, and the ship & crew finds themselves eyeballs deep in Gamilas territory, the series essentially slams the pedals with tension, and enough introspection on the crews part to make this more than an authentic nod to elder lovers of anime storytelling. (Strange how this can be seen as refreshing now, but it is.) Kudos also go to a series that takes the extra time to quiet moments such as Yuki honoring the lost, as other main characters consider the temerity of their mission as they gaze out onto the once vibrant blue planet.
And while the initial three episodes of Yamato 2199 bring with them much to celebrate, there are small things here and there in which I hope are given additonal consideration. Primarily, when considering the state-of-the-art, the presentation can be seen as both a gift and curse. Mostly in the way that most modern anime produced with heavy CG and cel-shaded coloring, there is a high emphasis on fine details which wasn’t nearly as possible in the past. Mechanical and costume designs are nothing less than top notch. The flip side to this (of course), is a lack of painter’s grit. There is something we simply cannot achieve in the current state, which is a loving sense of the handmade. Something I feel is essential in creating a sense of human warmth to the more somber aspects of the story. As well-composed as this series is, it can be a little more clinical than preferred. I understand that this is merely me being nostalgic, but there is something deeply impactful about the handmade that is a massive part of Yamato’s enduring appeal. Do I believe it is still possible? Probably not yet. But it does feel as if cast and crew have been more than ready to dish out the best product imaginable with this opening trio.
The only other real gripes I have at the moment (of course-again), is in the new crew members. While it is definitely welcome to consider new and important roles on the ship being undertaken by women, it does reek of the times, and it never really figures out a way to write itself out of this. Izibuchi has been capable of creating believable female characters in positions of high responsibility before, but here it almost cannot override a sense of business obligation. And while Yamamoto’s role setup is an interesting one that could go into some positive places for the series, one cannot help but feel like it’s business as usual(IE-Mari & the cult of Pizza Hut/Lawsons) with these new characters. Thankfully, we have yet to see Analyzer’s less than flattering sides, so there is still a bit more worry regarding this. Even in the far future of 2199, certain acts should be considered criminal.
Ensign Harada had better watch out..
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