August 18, 2009

Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato

Released in 1978 after being rushed through production in a mere six months, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato followed on the heels of Space Battleship Yamato, which outperformed Star Wars at the box office. Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato doubled that.

With its cute robots, planet-killing "Death Star" antagonist, and "Battle of Britain" fighter scenes, it's clearly derivative of Star Wars. The ship's bridge as the principal set, the protagonist's Kirkian disregard for military protocols, and his propensity—on a ship with hundreds of crew—to rush off to confront his enemies personally are clear nods to Star Trek.

The overdressed, operatically overacting evil aliens with blue or green skin as their only non-human characteristics come straight out of 1950's B-serials.

The crudely-drawn animation is reminiscent of 1960s Saturday morning Johnny Quest cartoons (60,000 cells in a 150 minute movie averages out to 6 fps). However, even given such rough material to work with, the direction by Toshio Masuda and Leiji Matsumoto borders on the brilliant at times, creating visual perspectives cinematically ahead of their time.

About a bajillion people get killed in Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, just as they do in Star Wars. Though without any blood and guts, Masuda and Matsumoto somehow manage to make the experience a lot more harrowing than in Star Wars.

Despite all the back-to-the-future echoes in the plot—fans of the original Star Trek series will recognize how the Yamato is turned into a big antimatter weapon, the "grand theft starship" business from Star Trek III (1984), and destroying a Death Star by flying inside it from Return of the Jedi (1983)—the Yamato itself is all Japanese and all Leiji Matsumoto.

Anachronistic space opera is Matsumoto's unique oeuvre, including pirate galleons in space (Captain Harlock), WWII battleships in space (Space Battleship Yamato), and steam engines in space (Galaxy Express 999). That last one is his most inspired and most inspiring. The 1979 film version is a remarkably exploration of moral philosophy through science fiction.

To be sure, despite its financial success, die-hard fans did not react well to practically the entire crew getting killed and the ship itself being destroyed. The events of Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato have since been relegated to an "alternate timeline," and the series—both television and theatrical releases—was resurrected anew.

However, I believe that Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato is actually the most true to its namesake and to the enormous weight of history that the story of the Yamato carries with her. Yamato is the ancient name of Japan, and the original battleship Yamato carried the Emperor's Imperial Seal prominently displayed on its bow.

Commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor, the Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the biggest battleships ever built, and their eighteen-inch main guns the largest ever mounted on a ship. The Yamato's first deployment was as Admiral Yamamoto's flagship during the Battle of Midway, though it never directly engaged U.S. forces.

But as Eliot wrote, "In my beginning is my end." The Battle of Midway made the battleship an anachronism. The Yamato was too valuable a symbol to risk as a "tin can" destroyer and was too fuel-hungry to use in middling support tasks. Aside from occasional run-ins with U.S. submarines, the Yamato saw minimal combat duty until October 1944.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended its career. In one of the most remarkable naval engagements in history, the tiny "Taffy 3" escort group fought an entire task force led by the Yamato to a draw. The mighty Yamato proved no match for the puny but radar-directed five-inch guns of the U.S. destroyers and the antiquated Wildcat and Avenger fighters from the escort carriers.

The Yamato spent most of its last year docked at its home base in Kure on the Inland Sea. Finally, in the name of blustering patriotism and "morale," it was sent on a suicide mission—with only enough fuel for a one-way trip—to engage the U.S. Navy off the shores of Okinawa.

The Yamato was attacked by carrier-based torpedo and dive bombers as soon as it emerged into the East China Sea. It was sunk two hours later. Only a handful of sailors escaped when its ammunition magazines exploded. The ship sank with 2,498 hands on board, the largest loss of life attributed to a single ship in peacetime or war (the Titanic lost 1,517).

Otoko-tachi no Yamato ("Our Yamato") is the latest attempt (2005) to document the life and death of the Yamato with a gory, melodramatic, Ridley Scott-style Hollywood approach. Except that lots of stuff spectacularly blowing up can't mask the criminally stupid waste of men and material that marked the Yamato's final voyage.

At least the Light Brigade featured in Tennyson's famous poem overran the Russian positions they were aiming at, but were forced to retreat when the less suicidal Heavy Brigade didn't advance down the "Valley of Death" after them. Pickett's Charge briefly breached the Union line on Cemetery Ridge before being pushed back with crippling losses.

All the Yamato managed to do was temporarily distract U.S. fighters from their more important job of shooting down kamikaze. The Yamato got nowhere near Okinawa. It didn't accomplish a single military objective. Twenty-five hundred men died for absolutely nothing.

At its heart, I can't help but read the Space Battleship Yamato series as an attempt to vest meaning in that meaningless loss.

In nods to The Philadelphia Experiment and Raise the Titanic! a starship is constructed inside the wreck of the Yamato, and then raised from the bottom of the ocean to battle aliens out to destroy the Earth. Spinoffs also have the ship being purposely sunk to prevent top-secret technology from falling into enemy hands, which is then salvaged by later generations.

Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato then becomes a restaging of the battleship's final, tragic mission (April 6-7, 1945). With the captain dead at the helm and the first mate alone alive at the wheel, the ultimate sacrifice made this time around is truly noble. The Yamato dies for something, saving the Earth from destruction and saving the lives of billions.

Even so, the historical perspective makes it all the more painful to watch. The most appropriate treatment of the Yamato story is perhaps the "Crossing the River of Time" episode of Kamichu! (DVD 3 episode 9). Kamichu! is about a junior high school student living in a fishing village near Kure, who wakes up one morning to discover she's turned into a minor Shinto deity.

In "Crossing the River of Time," Yurie escorts the "soul" of the Yamato (Shinto theology stipulates that all things—animate and inanimate—have unique souls or gods) back to her home base in Kure. It is a moving story that recognizes the bravery of the men who served on the Yamato, and the magnitude of their loss, without rationalizing or wallowing in it.

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