In Live Action!
I watch a lot of bad films. I watch a lot of good films. So I’m comfortable in saying good and bad don’t seem to be a yardstick by which I watch films. When I do little crits here, I’m often the least interested in what is good or bad about a film, but what’s interesting about it. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down what is interesting about any film, but clearly they are the worst films.This isn’t in that category. It’s a bad film, but there are quite a number of interesting things to talk about.
‘Space Battleship Yamato’ was the big release last year in Japan. It stars Takuya Kimura as Susumu Kodai, one of the iconic characters from manga in the 1970s. It’s a little like 36years after the event, Disney comes out with a live action ‘Toy Story’. I’ve not been able to get a hold of this picture for a while but I finally procured one down in Chinatown – a pirate release that’s been transferred at the wrong aspect ratio – and had a viewing. I have to say, I sat and watched uncomfortably for the duration.
What’s Good About It
The best thing about it is that the Japanese film industry can make this kind of action movie with special effects with spaceships zooming around doing dogfights. It’s 35years too late compared to ‘Star Wars’ but it finally got there. The computer generated Yamato looks a bit chintzy, but so did the Yamato in this movie. The fire fight looks fast and furious to the point of sensory overload and the explosions are big. It goes so fast it’s hard to tell what’s going on, but it goes.
What’s Bad About It
Directing. Acting. Script. It’s terrible. There’s a side of me that says I’d be embarrassed to be associated with this material, but there’s also a side that feels it would have liked to have directed it, just so it made some kind of sense, and had a bit more tension.
Also, it’s like a bad Star Trek movie as opposed to a good one.
What’s Interesting About It
Back in the summer of 1977, a film opened in Japan that changed the industry forever. It wasn’t Star Wars, it was the anime movie ‘Space Battleship Yamato’ which later got turned into a TV series and then exported to the US as ‘Star Blazers’. The thing about that 1977 movie was that it ignited the anime market just as Star Wars ignited the cinema market and rewrote the rules of the respective cinema. Just as there would be no modern blockbuster movie without Star Wars, the Japanese anime movie would not exist without the massive success of the original 1977anime version.
What possessed the rights owners that a live action version would be a good idea, I will never know. This is a terrible rendition of the story.
All the same, it’s worth pondering what the heck this thing is all about and it comes down to two things. One is the reconstruction of the World War II text, and the other is trying to overcome World War II as it stood. The most interesting thing about the Space Battleship Yamato text is how it mirrors ‘Star Wars’, both of which involve dogfights of spaceships. I always felt the kernel of the Death Star traces back to the US encounters with the battleships Musashi and Yamato which were the 2 largest battleships ever built. The awe-filled line “Look at the size of the thing.” is an echo of that experience. And the method by which the US sunk the two ships, but pinpoint air raids is relfected in the demise of not one but two Death Stars across the first Star Wars series.
By the same token, the battleship Yamato is brought back to life as a space-faring battlestar to take on the ever-encroaching enemy who have bombed the crap out of Earth. Yamato’s mission is the final mission, just as the last mission towards Okinawa for the real battleship Yamato was the final operation of the Imperial Japanese Navy Grand Fleet. The mythology of both stem from the titanic moment in World War II. It’s not surprising that ‘Star Wars’ appeared two yars after the end of the socially damaging Vietnam War, and ‘Space Battleship Yamato’ appeared a generation after the end of World War II to rewrite the myth.
Which raises the question, what is the meaning of the live action movie appearing today?
One suspects that the long economic doldrums has weighed on the cultural psyche of Japan to the point that the legend of Yamato had to be summoned once more to give a mythic story about rebirth and hope. It’s strange but at the same time also very understandable and sad. If the newer three films of ‘Star Wars’ indicate to us that fascism’s return is part of an endless cycle, then this new installment of Yamato seems to tell us the people must endure the cycle of fascism over and over and over again. It’s amazing how the two mythoologies dovetail. George Lucas needs to talk to Leiji Matsumoto.
Self Sacrifice And The Cycle of Violence
The suicide missions of Kamikaze and the final mission of the original Yamato are enshrined as founding myths for post-War Japan. There’s always been this tenor of they died for their country – an the lesson is that you boys and girls have to behave. No wonder Gen-X in Japan grew up to be irresponsible and largely uninterested in history. If you had to take it seriously you’d probably want to go shoot yourself – for your country – and be done with it.
Leiji Matsumoto who created the series, is largely antipathic to such formulations. So it is a little disappointing to see the final part of the film involves Kodai and the ship going on a suicide run. Matsumoto’s own work is filled with long discourses on the need to survive and live on through conflict. The self-sacrificial hero who does a kamikaze mission isn’t exactly high on Matsumoto’s own hero list; and I think this is very healthy. It’s a shame this version had to go back to the Kamikaze myth.
Also, it’s worth mentioning the bad guy in the series ‘Dessler’ is actually ‘Death-ler’ as in, ‘Death’ and ‘Hitler’ rolled into one. Matsumoto was clearly down on fascism, even though his work is fetishistic about military equipment. It’s a weird contradiction, but I guess if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you.
Lord of The Fliers
One of the ur-texts in the developing the original Space Battleship Yamato series was ‘Lord of the Flies’, where children are left to their own devices and fall to bits. Why that might have been an inspiration for the original producer Nishizaki is a bit of a mystery but there’s something of a world missing adults, running as a theme in the film.
In a sense the film is an allegory of post-war Japan that has had to find a way to be strong in spite of the old ways passing and dying out. The clearly patriarchal Captain Okita is dying and with him will go all the old traditions, reeking of the wet navy. The crew of the ship are all energetic and switched on but every single one of them seems like they are emotional retards. Which reminds me that Douglas MacArthur famously described the Japanese as having a mental age of seven. In this instance there is some emotional truth to the general’s observation.
The renewed space battleship Yamato heads off into deep space with a half-assed plan to go to where the message came from, with a crew of emotional retards, led by a dying captain. When they get there and find what they are looking for isn’t what they expected, they begin to quibble. It’s the moment you get the glimpse of the ‘Lord of the Flies’ ur-text. Sill, this being a Japanese text, it doesn’t turn into boar’s heads on sticks; everybody cooperates and the good die in self-sacrificing acts. They really need to stop doing that in Japanese movies.
The West As A Duality
When the Space Battleship Yamato arrives at the destination in the Large Magellanic cloud, they find that the enemy Gamilas are from the same world as the people who sent the capsule to help them. Clearly the destination Iskandar (or ‘Alexander the Great in Hindi’) is a metaphor for the West. Even the name of Magellan and the great age of sailing is invoked in the names and of course the bad guy ‘Dessler/Death-Hitler’ hails from the same place as where the cure will come.
It is true, the Japanese got both modern military methods and medicine from the Germans.
I often wonder how the Space Battleship Yamato thing plays out in Germany. They must be perplexed by the love and disappointment from Japan.
Radio Activity Remover
The most sad angle in the story might b the reason for the ultimate journey, the recovery of a radiation cleaning device. In the beginning they talk about 14 sieverts of radiation and it’s poignant that at the time they made the film, such units were largely academic to the wider audience. Little would they know that the unit sieverts would become a daily word in the newspaper in the wake of the Fukushima plant melting down.
The radiation removal technology is a kind of wish-machine unique to science fiction so you take it with the grain of salt, and clearly the concern about radiation crept into the initial comic book out of the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is oddly ironic then that people might really want to make a trip out to Iskandar now that there is a major radiation problem in Fukushima. In that sense, the film achieves a kind of weird prescience about the problems that unfolded after the Tsunami of 11th March 2011. I guess it was also prescient about how government authority structures are prone to lying to its own populace.
They fluked a kind of relevance, but it is oddly more relevant today than when it was released summer last year.