Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Journey to Iscandar


As I wrote in Yamato, two years ago, the series Space Battleship Yamato, in its U.S. re-dubbed and edited form known as Star Blazers was a huge influence on what I expect from series television.

And yet most of my adult attempts to revisit it have ended somewhere around episode 13. There's no specific reason for it. In fact, that episode, "Hurry Yamato! Earth is Suffering!!", is particularly solid. An enemy pilot is captured, leading to some well-done back story for Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildstar on "Star Blazers"). Not to mention it features the introduction of a new, more competent enemy general with General Domel (General Lysis on "Star Blazers").

(You can read some commentary on the "Star Blazers" version of that episode at Hurry, Argo! Earth is suffering! by Arthur Painter.)

On this, my third try, I still ended up taking a break right around that point and had to make myself sit back down and finish it, despite the fact that I was enjoying it.

If there is a real sticking point here, it isn't the quality of the show up until that point, it's that on this much vaunted "journey of 296,000 light years", it takes half the run of the show to get out of our solar system. I think despite enjoying the episodes individually, I can't help getting a sense of unbalance as I'm watching around there.

In fact, what stands out to me now, as an adult, isn't how well the over-arcing story works, but how often it doesn't quite.

Mind you, the characters and the character relationships and how they develop and unfold is still remarkable, so I'm not putting down series for what it does as an unfolding piece. In fact, I think that is a much more remarkable accomplishment. Not to mention, all of the episodes work well as 23-minutes of action/adventure/drama.

Perhaps, unlike later series of this type, many of which undoubtedly learned from "Space Battleship Yamato", it's a series best watched once a week or even, as we did when I was growing up, once a day. I suspect that even now if I'd taken a slower pace, I'd have been more inclined to leap forward to say what I like.

And that is so much that I'm having trouble sorting all of it out to write.

First of all, the set-up is tremendous.

Earth has been nearly demolished by radioactive bombs, sent from an attack by the mysterious Gamilas (Gamilons on "Star Blazers"). People have moved to cities beneath the ground to escape the radiation, but it has reached a critical point in which humanity will only survive another year.

The Battleship Yamato, lost at the bottom of the sea since April of 1945, had been being repurposed as a spacecraft, in order to escort some last hope of humanity to survive. Before that can happen, however, a message is delivered from the planet Iscandar that they can a device called Cosmo-Cleaner D (Cosmo DNA on "Star Blazers") which will eliminate the radiation on Earth.

The Yamato (re-christened the Argo on "Star Blazers") is sent to on its long journey to Iscandar and back, given a tight one-year timeline. The show largely operates as if this timeline is very specific, as if perhaps the Earth would explode on some specific date. It does occasionally, such as in the excellent episode Homesickness of Space! My Mother's Tears are My Tears, in which Aihara (Homer on "Star Blazers") is able to communicate briefly with Earth and learns of the further deterioration of the quality of life back home.

The depth of the characters, centering on Kodai and Captain Okita (Captain Avatar on "Star Blazers"), both nursing open wounds over the loss of their families in the war with Gamilas, is stunning for a show of this sort. Even having experience in a world in which "Yamato" influenced generations have imitated and developed from this point, the subtlety that "Yamato" itself stands out.

And the music, composed by Hiroshi Miyagawa is spectacular on every level. Not only the theme song, which stirs up Conan's emotions at 10-months old, despite not watching the show or having any kind of nostalgia to tie it to, and the haunting and sentimental closing theme, "The Scarlet Scarf", that get all the attention. It's filled with perfect music, from swelling orchestral moments and quiet moments.

My favorites, however, are the groovy little funkified fills in and around work being done. They positively reek of 1974, and I have a bad feeling as I start the second series, The Comet Empire, from 1978, those will be gone in favor of more "serious" pieces of filler.

As a minor sci-fi nerd, I also have to appreciate how much time and effort they put into explaining the sci-fi concepts. I think that was one of the things I really enjoyed as a kid especially. I'm not a good enough nerd to know how valid many of the concepts are, but I like knowing that someone put real thought into them.

The main problem with this series, The Quest for Iscandar - I'm unsure how "Journey to Iscandar", which I used as the title here, got stuck in my head, by I like it better somehow - is that it had been originally planned as 39 episodes, and the plan wasn't altered until a month into release, so much of the way the beginning is told, and I complained about earlier, is because the story was expected to go on longer.

The most famous of the plans for the longer arc was the involvement of Captain Harlock, who would go on to fame on his own. In this arc, he would lend assistance at surprise moments until eventually being revealed to be Kodai's brother, Mamoru Kodai (Alex Wildstar on "Star Blazers"), believed to have been killed in battle in the first episode.

That's an incidental loss, most likely, although a terrifically fun one.

The key points at issue for me are in General Domel's campaign, which is set-up to be more than it delivers as a long-term arc. It does, however, deliver Decisive Battle!! Battle for Honor in the Rainbow Star Group!!, which is the kickass battle episode of the series. A great payoff, that would, however, only have been greater with a richer set-up.

The conclusion feels the most rushed, though, setting things up and finishing them in a very short time. Nowhere is this more evident than in Death Struggle! God, Weep for the Gamilas!!, where a potentially poignant moment in which Kodai and Yuki Mori (Nova Forrester on "Star Blazers") weep over the devastation caused in their victorious battle against Gamilas. It's a nice scene in this form, and a nice reminder in the midst of an action-adventure of the cost of war. To me as an adult now, though, it feels less earned than it should. I think those ideas could have been developed first.

This storyline is currently being literally remade as a new 26-episode animated series. You can see a preview for it at Space Battleship Yamato: 2199 (2012) Watch the new 3'45" Promotion Video, Now! by August Ragone. It looks great! I'm very excited for a chance to see it.

It looks frankly more promising than the live action movie, Space Battleship Yamato, which got a lot of things right in updating the story and in adapting it to live-action. It got criticism for obviously using the 2004 Battlestar Galactica as reference point in updating the story.

That's interesting to me in that watching now, with the dates in my head, I can't believe that the 1978 Battlestar Galactica wasn't strongly influenced by "Space Battleship Yamato". I've never seen a reference for this, and I suspect it's through the original Space Battleship Yamato movie, an edited down version of the TV series that had been shopped around Cannes and given some U.S. showing as Space Cruiser Yamato as well as just Space Cruiser. The lawsuit came from Star Wars, but the points of comparison to "Yamato", visually and storywise, are far greater.

Ultimately, the 2011 Yamato is entertaining, especially in seeing familiar cartoon characters realized, and it really did surprisingly well with the character relationships, but ultimately felt like it tried too hard for a more modern sci-fi approach in making the Gamilas an abstract lifeform rather than simple blue humanoids.

We'll see if the new "Space Battleship Yamato: 2199" manages to hammer out the story issues, along with the impressive new visuals.

I'm off to "The Comet Empire" and I'm planning to check in along the way.

If you're interested in more of the story behind this series, I can't recommend a better source than this series by Tim Eldred: Part 1: the Anime Classic that Nearly Wasn’t, Part 2: From Valley to Peak, Part 3: Arrivederci Dark Ages, Hello Global Village and Part 4: We’re Off to Outer Space.


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