She's a fine ship

24 Mar , 2011,
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Space Battleship Yamato - Poster Art

And she’s a grand old dame in Japan’s animation history, to say the least.

Having grown up watching Matsumoto’s series and the English dubbed Star Blazers, I was pleasantly surprised to discover last year that Space Battleship Yamato was hitting the big screen.

And true enough, after watching it on opening night, I have to say that this movie adaptation is not just a fun romp through space, but an evocative coming of age story – a story of hope that puts Battle: Los Angeles (for all its vaunted CG and ridiculously overpriced effects) to shame.

Starring Takuya Kimura in the lead role, the movie is an adept retelling of the animes first season, condensed into some 2 amazing, action packed hours.

The earth is threatened by radioactive fallout caused by the Gamilas, and the only way for humanity to survive is to travel 148,000 light years away, to the planet Iskandar, where there is hope for a cure. Susumu Kodai (Kimura), a former space ace, re-enlists with the Yamato crew, flying under the command of Captain Okita (played by the amazing Tsutomu Yamazaki).

Susumu matures throughout the story – finding love, experiencing loss, and making sacrifices along the way as he grows from a rowdy, hot-headed youth with a chip on his shoulder and a ton of past baggage into a shining example of a starship captain – something that, despite all the narm and angst in Hollywood movies with a similar premise, prove all too hard to accomplish.

Part of Yamato’s charm is that it’s unpretentious. It’s a story rife with heroic sacrifice and manly talk, but these elements are played straight, and in perfect keeping with its cultural context.

Visually, Yamato’s great, and the acting and direction are top notch.

You’ll find yourself cheering along with the cast when Okita yells “Yamato! Hasshin!” and the spaceship lifts off, shedding rock and sediment like a second skin, and shedding a tear each time someone vital in the crew goes out with a bang.  The zero-G dogfights are gripping, the alien and spaceship designs are arresting,  and who can forget the wave motion cannon sequence? It’s what makes or breaks a Japanese space opera.

Kimura’s flair speaks for itself. For a man approaching the big Four-Oh, he’s actually pretty versatile when it comes to acting half his age. Kuroki Meisa, who is actually half his age, sizzles up the screen with him, though with only 2 hours, you’re hard pressed to find more scenes that play up their chemistry. Yamazaki, with his grizzled looks and gravelly voice, was perfect as Okita, and chambara matron Reiko Takashima did a pretty stellar impression of the oft-inebriated, cat-toting Doctor Sado.

It’s a pity, though, that the story’s not quite as true to the series as I’d have liked it to be. If I said more, though, I’d be giving the game away.

Admittedly, if you’re not a fan of Asian cinema, you might find the overall treatment a little too camp and made-for-TV (I’ve heard whispers in the theatre that some sequences looked like they’d fit right in with Power Rangers,  the plebeians), but if you’ve been weaned on the stuff, then you’ll know it’s perfectly in keeping with genre conventions.

In conclusion, this movie might be the Yamato franchise’s finest hour just yet. If you’re a sci-fi fan, especially one that recalls the original, you will not be disappointed.

And hey, if you’re a Kimutaku fan like the googly eyed, squealing schoolgirls populating GV Plaza last night, this is his best performance yet.