Space Battleship Yamato, or Star Blazers as it's known in America, was a genre-reshaping show that's I've heard called Japan's Star Trek. It introduced television audiences to Leiji Matsumoto, the grand old man of Japanese space opera who also gave the world Space Pirate Captain Harlock. It's rightly revered.
It bored the arse off me.
Firstly, it looks cheesy. Go Nagai's 1970s shows today still look good, but Space Battleship Yamato is like the work of a small boy with Alzheimer's. Yes, I'm being shallow, but seriously. It looks like bollocks. Now in fairness that's a first impression and if you stick with it, you'll find that underneath that creaky surface lies some awesome imagery, e.g. the Yamato rising over Titan's icecaps or sinking in Pluto's oceans. That's powerful. There's also unintentional humour, e.g. Leader Desurer's disco dancing at the end of season one. Nevertheless surviving your first five minutes of this show involves unplugging all normal aesthetics and rewiring your brain for 1970s Leiji Matsumoto. The porno/disco music is also amusing.
That's all surface, though. Underneath all that, this is the least cheesy show in the world. Yamato is a heavy-duty war epic of death and tragedy. It's also heavily informed by World War Two. The Gamirasu are bombarding Earth with radioactive bombs and turning it into an uninhabitable wasteland. All seems lost until an offer of salvation arrives from the planet Iscandar. Thus the ruined ship Yamato (an old name for Japan) is retooled into a battleship and sent off as mankind's last desperate hope. Understandably the show's American dub downplayed these themes as much as possible, along with much of the violence.
All that I liked. The universe of Yamato is one of kill or be killed, in which Matsumoto isn't afraid to show his heroes cracking under stress, getting it wrong and acting like dickheads. Losing a war affects the themes you'll put in your war stories. Compare the American edit of Godzilla
with the Japanese original, for instance, but even a post-Vietnam American network would never have put this much death and brutality into a cartoon.
Unfortunately there's a downside to the heroes acting like idiots. I disliked the cast. Season One Kodai wanted slapping. Shima and Yuki needed personalities. Analyser needed to go through a car crusher. I only kept watching because of Captain Birdseye (note: not his real name) and his ability to make tough decisions, although interestingly even he isn't shown to be infallible. Stress and emotion can get to him, making him mess up like everyone else. Now admittedly young hotheads who grow to maturity are a Matsumoto trope. In addition to Kodai and his idiot brother, you could cite Ichimonji in Danguard Ace, Daiba in Captain Harlock, Yuuki Manabu and maybe even Harlock himself in his youth. However I've never cared about any of those losers either.
The show's portrayal of wartime life can be powerful, but I can have problems with its World War Two parallels. Even today Japan is in denial about its war record. This show has plenty of "Japan good, America evil" metaphor, although fortunately it's not always so simplistic. It's more humanist than the real wartime Japan. Overall I liked the show better when it was exploring themes than when it was being the fictionalised equivalent of a Sun headline.
What it does successfully is to evokes the grief, fear and tragedy of war. It's almost literature, i.e. the mature evocation of a grim experience instead of anything actually enjoyable. Casual inspection might lead you to expect a kiddie show of cute characters and fun adventures where no one gets hurt. Not so. This show kills people.
However I haven't yet mentioned my third problem. I don't like Space Battleship shows. They separate the heroes and the villains, tending to reduce everyone to crews instead of letting them be individuals. "Oh no, Yamato's flown into a field of radio-controlled exploding space asteroids!" I don't care about the Yamato. It's a hunk o' junk. And yes, I hate Star Trek spaceship battles too. This show is painting a grand epic on an apocalyptic canvas, but too often this leaves its characters stuck on the bridge with Captain Birdseye. As for the villains... Jesus wept. I nearly opened my wrists during those interminable scenes of Gamirasu bickering and being astonished yet again that Yamato survived. I wanted to boo the heroes and cheer on the Gamirasu, but I couldn't because they're so pathetic!
Then we have the stupidity, bad decisions and daft plot points. Captain Birdseye doesn't appoint a second-in-command until episode 20, by which time we've had to suffer everyone standing around like lemons in the middle of an attack. "We shouldn't do anything without the captain!" Yeah, right. The eventual result is Kodai taking charge, i.e. the judgement-free zone I wouldn't trust with a whelk stall. Admittedly he grows as a person in later episodes, but there was hardly room for him to go in any other direction.
Other examples... (1) The Gamirasu are turning Earth into a poisoned rock because they want to live there? Smart thinking, guys. (2) You've got to laugh at the Gamirasu on Pluto. "Let's welcome Yamato and pretend to be friendly, which of course they'll fall for despite our ongoing efforts to sterilise the Earth and exterminate mankind." (3) With a year to travel the 300,000 light-years to Iscandar, after a month Yamato has only reached Saturn. Admittedly it's an untested drive and the jumps keep getting longer, but if you're going 300,000 light-years then any sub-light travel is irrelevant. They'd have been better off putting the Yamato into orbit around some neglected asteroid, staying out of trouble and working around the clock to perfect the ripple drive. (4) In episode six, Kodai opens up a tank and shoots its driver. That was good. That was another early indication that we weren't playing by Crap Kiddie rules but were working on a far more serious level. However I was less enamoured of Kodai's subsequent attack of brainlessness, in which he doesn't get into the sodding tank and instead chases the other one on foot!
You can construct fan theories. Presumably the Gamirasu intend to decontaminate the Earth once they've killed off its pesky inhabitants, but I see dramatic irony there. Having ruined their own planet, the Gamirasu begin their invasion of Earth by ruining that too! Patterns repeat themselves. Besides if their decontaminators were that good, then why didn't they use them on Gamirasu? Finally we're told that if the Yamato had returned any later then Earth would have been poisoned to the point of complete eco-destruction, beyond the help of even the Iscandar decontaminator.
Basically I find this show dreary, but its high points are stunning. Matsumoto's big selling point is tragedy. Season One's last two episodes are damn good, though he cheats by killing characters and then bringing them back to life without explanation. Because of this, I'd guess that the show's better on rewatching. Foreknowledge of tragedy and character development can add depth to a series, but that's no consolation if you're watching individual episodes for the first time! It's like Harlock, which works better when you already know all the backstory. Still, there are some undeniably powerful episodes. The second season is allegedly the best, with Desslok's famous Road to Damascus moment and Yuki fiercely protecting an injured Kodai.
It's also unfair to damn Matsumoto as merely a flag-waving cheerleader for Japan's war record. Over time the Yamato becomes a symbol of the crew's disagreements with Earth's government. As on Harlock's Arcadia, they end up belonging more to their ship than to their home planet. Matsumoto is also something of a history buff. There really was a Yamato, a ludicrous folly that was obsolete before she even left the drawing board. The military couldn't even afford to run her, so she was deliberately deprived of effective support and effectively sent out to die with her entire crew. The Americans knew of her mission from the start. Through this story Matsumoto gave her a second chance, redeeming her as a protector of Earth and galactic peace.
At the end of the day, this show didn't grab me. I admire what it's doing with planetary destruction and the horrors of war, but its actual episodes feature uninteresting characters getting not enough to do. There's hard SF, but not enough to save the show. It's epic... but I'm not really a fan of "epic".