I'm not a fan of the original Space Battleship Yamato anime. I admire what Leiji Matsumoto's doing without caring two hoots about the characters, no matter that it's still massively popular both in Japan and America, as Star Blazers.
This film impressed me, though. It's reasonably faithful to the spirit of Matsumoto and in certain respects improves on the original, despite the obvious problem of being a live-action movie. The anime is braver, I think. It could be shocking. Matsumoto was really pushing the boat out and there were some powerful episodes in there. However the film captures the most important thing about the original series, which is that this is a serious war story in which our heroes are being forced to take ugly decisions and kill their friends. It starts out looking like standard space nonsense, more like Star Wars than Star Trek, but then things get darker and darker until we're seeing heroes getting casually turned into human shish kebabs by the enemy and the human commander have done some terrible things to their own comrades.
What's been improved for the film is the cast. I admired the anime's courage in making its heroes unlikeable, but I also didn't like them. Kodai in the anime is a loose cannon with mental problems who needed to be taken out and shot. Seriously. If I'd been in charge of his ship, I'd have spaced him for the sake of everyone else. Here though we have a Kodai (Takuya Kimura) who's sympathetic and has comprehensible motivations. Tsutomu Yamazaki looks unconvincing as Captain Birdseye, never quite managing to get away with the beard, but he shares his anime equivalent's willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if it means being a cold-blooded son of a bitch. I liked him. The other crew members on the Yamato are fun. A few have had a sex change, as was inevitable. They're still a fairly charmless bunch who largely exist to suffer, fight and die, but I thought they were perfectly okay and in some cases (Kodai) were far, far better.
The only one I wasn't wild about was Meisa Kuroki as Yuki. She's a girl among fighting men, so as with Yoko Maki in SP - The Motion Picture
, the scriptwriters have decided to show how tough she is by making her a sour grump who keeps hitting her colleagues. Colour me unimpressed. In fairness Kuroki is much more important to this film than Maki was in hers, but on the other hand after having been painstakingly established as on a par with the men, the finale then gives her a Brainless Emotional Scene. I also rolled my eyes at the kiss, no matter that it had to happen.
The iconography though is superb. The Yamato itself is almost impossibly faithful and this in itself gives rise to a few spine-tingling moments. Designs have been updated, but only by the absolute minimum required to make them real. It feels right. The uniforms still have red arrows, the sets feel similarly accurate and so on. This battleship has a lot of character, actually, with an atmosphere that reminded me of submarine movies. It's the same kind of claustrophobic lighting.
Then there are the wartime parallels. These aren't quite as blatant as in the anime, but even so the film's first act in particular reminded me of Babylon 5
. Most movies would be nervous to go this apeshit with backstory. However here they're hammering home the message that the human race is about to become extinct. The Gamilas are bombarding Earth with radioactive meteorites and turning it into a glowing cinder in space. Compare this with the belief in Hiroshima in 1945 that nothing would ever grow there again. They were wrong, of course, but it's that level of apocalypse. The stakes for the Yamato's crew are as high as they could possibly be.
The main thing that's going to challenge fanboys is the Gamilas. These ones aren't humanoid losers with way too much screen time, but instead something entirely alien and barely seen. Thumbs up from me. The storyline's obviously heavily streamlined, having lost the original's episodic (by definition) nature, and it doesn't reach the greatest heights of Matsumoto, but it's at least trying to get there. It's respectful and its heart's in the right place.
There have been other Yamato movies, but this is the first live-action one. Overall, I'd say it's a surprisingly recommendable entry in a major SF franchise that in Japan is as big as Star Wars and Star Trek, but is making them look like bubblegum. I'd guess its tone might be like the modern Battlestar Galactica remake, except that I've never seen that. You can watch it as a proper movie, not just space pants. On the downside, it's still a dour franchise and even after this major upgrade I still wouldn't say its characters were involving or likeable, but then again I respect the production team for sticking with that. It's got things to say about war and the loneliness of command. It's not without emotional power. This is proper, serious SF and it would be wrong to deny that just because it used to be a cartoon.