Friday, October 29, 2010

Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato, 30 Years Later

First off: there's a live action movie coming out in December (good). It's only being released in Japan (++ungood). Join this awesome Facebook group and tell your geeky friends if you want to convince a distributor that there's a market for it in the States. For once I want to actually pay to see a movie instead of shamelessly pirating it,* and they're putting obstacles in my way! After all, preparing for this movie is the whole reason I went back and rewatched, nay, studied the series and why I'm inflicting this blog post on you now.

If you don't already know the great Star Blazers/Uchuu Senkyan Yamato, don't waste your time reading this. It's a late 70s/early 80s Japanese cartoon, and although I'm amazed how mature some of its themes are, I think if you didn't like it as a kid, you're not going to start liking it as a grown-up. A friend showed me Buckaroo Banzai at age 33 and his theory about why I hated it, despite liking other extremely dumb things, is that I'd missed the "critical window", i.e. fourth grade. (Perhaps this is why seeing Ministry for the first time at age 34 was also guaranteed to be a bad experience.) As a further example: the same artist who did Yamato also did Galaxy Express 999, which I think is about the stupidest thing ever. I mean, a frickin train going across space? ("But Mike," you might object, ever the astute reader, "doesn't Yamato feature a frickin WWII ocean battleship going across space?" "That's different.") Which is to say, trust nothing that I say here, except for that sentence. All Cretans are liars.

So what do I notice about Star Blazers that I didn't notice as a kid?

1) I remember much of it crystal-clearly - in some cases actual lines of dialogue, or names of planets - but there are whole episodes or scenes which I don't recall at all. Case in point: I remember that they recognized something was strange about the planet Balan because the plants grew toward the ground, indicating no reliance on natural sunlight; I remember Wildstar ridiculing Nova for wishing on a hunk of burning hydrogen and carbon (and thinking that was cool); but I have no memory of Captain Avatar's struggles with his health. The ones I can't remember tend to be character-building sections. It's possible they weren't aired because they were thought by the syndicating networks to be too intense or just too boring, but it's more likely that at five years old I just didn't care about anything that didn't involve the wave motion gun and space fighters.

2) The music has aged very well, even beyond the ubiquitous theme song. (Click here and scroll down for awesome version of it.) Some of it sounds very 70s (the use of guitar wah-pedal and echo effects for creepy or mysterious things, for example) but most of it stands the test of time.

3) I was being funny in my post where I claimed all of the Star Blazers characters were meant to be white. For example: characters sit cross-legged when socializing, unlike Westerners. Cars drive on the left. "Great Island" and "dormant volcano on Great Island" could not more obviously be Honshu and Fuji (and when they show Earth, they zoom in on the northwestern Pacific). In the flashback where the young Derek Wildstar is talking to his brother Alex at the Academy, a clumsy dub leads them to declare their mother made them chocolate cake when it was clearly maki. This I can understand. 1979 America might not have appreciated that a mother could express her love for her oldest son love by sending him raw fish.

However - it says something about anime in general that a Westerner can watch these cartoons and not have the characters' appearance seem foreign to him. My contention is that this style of drawing minimizes differences between Asians and Caucasians, deliberately or otherwise. Note that Nova is blonde. Yamato was made before Japanese women were lightening their hair.

As an aside, I do concede that Sandor is Japanese. He's the smartest and most dedicated guy on the ship, he's extremely cautious and conservative, AND his eyes are noticeably smaller. Wait, you're offended? I'm sorry you lack the nuanced cultural understanding that I have evolved in my travels, and I refer you to Eddie Murphy, who (as in all topics) is a recognized authority on this matter. But in all seriousness, I can't tell you how many times some anime idiot has started lecturing me about some aspect of Japanese culture that according to him (always a him!) I would have trouble understanding as a white person. Living in New Jersey or the San Fernando Valley and being sixteen apparently provides a better education in this regard than one might have expected!

They seem to be getting on well these days.

4) Derek Wildstar is an asshole in the first series. I don't mean he has a rebel streak, I mean he's actively a self-centered dick, particularly to his crew-mate Venture, particularly in light of the fact that he's willing to let his pettiness get in the way of saving all life on Earth. Again I never picked up on this as a kid. Watching the series as an adult, the focus on Wildstar makes it seem that Yamato is partially a bildungsroman about him, as he gradually takes on the Captain's role and grows as a leader and moral person despite his doubts about himself.

5) The obvious: much of Japanese film and anime has had to do with the after-effect of getting A-bombed and conquered. And this is not unreasonable; one might expect that your country getting hit with atomic weapons might later effect its psyche and artistic output. Star Blazers clearly fits this pattern, but with more revenge-fantasy than most such works. The Star Force builds an amazingly uber-phallic weapon which, after a great build-up, fires out a stream of irresistible white energy from the great meatus on the bow of the ship, destroying all in its path (the trigger pulled no less by Wildstar himself.) They install this weapon in the flagship of the Imperial Japanese fleet (!), given the ancestral name of Japan, and proceed to island-hop across the galaxy, the whole way fighting the barbarians with strange hair colors** who had attacked the sacred homeland of Earth. Fantasy re-fighting of WWII emerging from the subconscious, anyone? Much like the S on Superman's chest, you would think eventually the Gamilons would eventually resist the urge to engage the Yamato head-on. But then there would have been no wave motion ejaculations to set five year-old kids jumping up and down with excitement during the build-up, as opposed to the 36 year old medical student not wanting to admit to the same jumping up and down. Me? No, of course not, what a ridiculous thing to think!

Once they get to Iskandar, they blow up Gamilon, which it turns out they were going toward the whole time, in a Campbellian twist to the whole affair. One could think of the Comet Empire*** as the Russians, the new enemy to fear after the homeland has been rebuilt. This kind of national-historical allegory is most often done for Star Trek with the Klingons as Russians, the Romulans as Japanese, etc. The Romulans are more interesting as pseudo-Japanese than the Neemoidians of Star Wars, who just sound Japanese. Someone should do a table. Who else have Americans been besides Gamilons?

6) And speaking of that, the influence of Star Trek is obvious now - the ship as a character in its own right, the uniforms - but I'll credit Yamato with having more character development than Star Trek. The fact that the technology wasn't always 100% reliable made it more interesting too (which is also why I liked Enterprise better than any of the other series. That and T'Pol.)

7) The first series sorta kinda passes the Bechdel Test. For a science fiction cartoon in 1979, you have to admit that's not bad. Nova and Starsha have a conversation alone, a few lines of which involve Starsha's future on Iskandar and whether she'll come back to Earth with the Yamato - but that's right before they shade into talking about her love for Alex Wildstar, hence the qualifier. I do have to admit I find it strange that there are really only two female characters in the series, and they bear a strong resemblance to each other - on which fact the characters themselves comment.

8) In one episode the Yamato captures a Gamilon pilot. As Doctor Sane examines him, he reads off vitals and hematology statistics, declaring that they're identical to a healthy human's data. I had just finished taking hematology when I re-watched it and wouldn't have understood the information without looking it up before, so I found it funny (and impressive) that they included such technical information in a program mostly watched by kids.****

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The real resting place of the Yamato.

All in all, positive or negative, it's still the best cartoon ever made. I noticed how many of what I'd thought were at least unique combinations of science fiction ideas in my own stories (not yet published of course) were directly inspired by Star Blazers. The moving planet at the center of an empire destroying everything in its path, for example. Even the spaceships I drew all over my notes in junior high were really just Yamato rip-offs, whether or not I realized it.

Returning to nostalgia-media like this is often instructive, because we can compare our reactions then and now to see how we've changed. (The best beer I ever tasted was at the finish line of the Big Sur Marathon. It was a Sierra Nevada IPA, which I hate, but my body was thrilled with anything made of carbs and liquid. Experience is an interaction of self and environmental input, and sometimes when the experience changes, it's not because input changed, it's because self changed.) But when the comparison is done from childhood to adulthood, the modern experience is usually disappointing - watching the old Transformers sure was - the psychological equivalent of going back to an old playground and seeing how much smaller everything is, and how actually, it wasn't the most inherently wonderful place in the world. Visiting the Reagan Museum will have the same effect on an 80s kid who has gradually become less sympathetic with the social conservative agenda. That said, I still liked watching Star Blazers again.

Admittedly doing this kind of auto-system-restore on yourself is also a bit masturbatory. In the long run, who cares? Now that we're swimming in media, those of us so inclined can also drown ourselves in nostalgia. Only in the modern era do we have enough time off from running from tigers to sit around pointlessly trying to tie back together obscure fleeting bits of our temporal lobes, as if trying to stave off some eventual cognitive Big Rip.

*It's amazing how fast my moral position on intellectual property changed when I left consulting and went back to being a thrifty student. Once I'm practicing medicine a similar reverse-shift is no doubt in store.

**By the way, why do the Gamilons only become blue a few episodes in? Will there be a how-the-Klingons-got-their-ridges continuity-fixer in the live action movie?

***When I get old I want to grow my eyebrows into my hairline, like the Comet Empire guy.

****I don't like the implication from Dr. Sane's character that all doctors all bumbling alcoholics. I'm not bumbling. I'm never so drunk on the job that I can't complete a procedure.


Michael Caton said...

(Posted on behalf of Motoo:)

Few thoughts:

1, I like Galaxy Express 999 more than Yamato. I watched them both as a kid. I like 999 more after I got older. It has rather mature philosophical message in each episode as well as the whole series, which appealed to me.

Also note that there is a famous short story by Kenji Miyazawa (I think) titled "The Night of Galaxy Express" which probably had a strong influence in Galaxy Express 999.

In either shows, I always find it amusing that all ships/trains are always right side up ... while they are in the space that has no ups and downs.

2, Whether Yamato was the best anime of all time is easily arguable. In term of overall influence to the whole Japanese anime industry, Gundam would definitely take the title. It, too, had rather mature approach to the anime media that was thought as a program for kids. Hell, Gundam spin-offs are still being made, and still manage to be popular.

3, Hair color thing is rather interesting. You see some blond characters in Gundam also, but it can be more forgiven by the fact that their names are more western. The blond hair can also be seen with Galaxy Express 999. But from there, various anime employed whole different colors ... from pink to purple to green. It is amazing how they don't look weird in the context.

One thing you'll notice is the inability of author to draw an attractive female character in more than one way, which makes many of those characters look alike. I highly doubt it was intentional that only two female characters in Yamato look alike.

Michael Caton said...

1) RE Star Blazers physics, also explosions smoking in space, as well as fighters going "down" when hit. They're also inconsistent in the distances they give. Megameters is a fine measure (for instance I'm sitting about five megameters from you, Motoo, right now) but they're all over the place.

2) RE drawing female characters, I would agree except that the characters themselves explicitly make a big deal out of how similar they look.

Brian said...

If you want the REAL "Star Blazers", it's best to watch "Space Battleship Yamato" in Japanese. I learned SO much more about this series (which I watched as a kid as well) and how the characters really acted and talked. Yes, Wildstar was an a-hole in the beginning, but (IMO) not as bad as in English. In SBY, you see Capt. Avitars' health issues.

In fact, the one thing that shocked me more about StarBlazers was that this is the first time I saw a character in a "cartoon" which actually DIES (unlike the Coyote, which always comes back to chase the Road Runner another day). That's since unheard off now, and is probably forbidden by some TV programming rule.

My 2 cents.

Michael Caton said...

Too bad the live action movie wasn't released here - Brian, if you're in the U.S. and on Facebook, check out the "Bring Yamato Live Action Move to the U.S.!" Facebook group. That way the unbelievers (like me) will be forced to grapple with the Japaneseness of Yamato.!/home.php?sk=group_138038896243404&ap=1