Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (2010)

As much as I don't care for anime in general, for some inexplicable reason I find live-action films based on them to be fascinating. Sometimes it has been because of the fact that it is based on one of the few anime's that I like. FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (1995), by all rights, should have been incredible. Maybe Gary Daniels isn't the living embodiment of Kaneshiro, but it's freaking Gary Daniels! I weep for those of you who only know him as the guy who gets cold-cocked by Steve Austin in THE EXPENDABLES (2010). Regardless of whether you enjoyed the anime or not, everyone can agree FIST was a train wreck. Because of the budget, I'd say it was a Lionel train wreck.

This brings us to Toho's attempt at bringing the hugely popular anime "Space Battleship Yamato" (1974-) to the big screen in in live action form with modern technology. "Yamato" was so popular back in the '70s that it was one of many that got licensed and dubbed into English for US morning children's television under the tile "Starblazers". Of course the last time I saw the Battleship Yamato was during Daiei's mind-liquefying epic SPACE MONSTER GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER (1977). Again, I feel this makes me the perfect person to talk about the Toho live action film. No prejudice, I take it on its own terms. I just wish those terms were more enjoyable. Do you like how I justified my ignorance of the source material?

Starting off with the obligatory JEDI-inspired dogfight, except here it's cranked up to the level heretofore unseen in anything other than a game of "Ikaruga". If only more pew-pews equaled something more interesting. By contrast, SPACE CAPTAIN HARLOCK (2013) took the space battle and moved it in to the realm of THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) with massive spectacles of twisting metal and vehicular debris.

I think we've played this game before.

Now that the STAR WARS homage is over, we can now get down to business. The year is 2199 and the Earth Defense Forces are being decimated near Mars by aliens called the Gamilas. For the past five years the Gamilas have been bombing Earth from orbit with meteors that have turned the planet's surface into a desert wasteland, saturated with radiation. What is left of the planet's population now lives underground in squalid bunkers that clearly did not have showers installed. One of the few of the more rugged humans, ex-pilot Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura), makes trips out on to the earth's surface in a gas mask (which apparently prevents radiation contamination) to forage for scrap metal that he can sell to the EDF in exchange for drugs and likker. Where the EDF is getting dope and alcohol from when there is a war on is never explained. Perhaps there was some sort of Federal Reserve set up for just such an occurrence. On his most recent trip, Kodai is nearly hit by a meteor that knocks his gas mask off, which should have given him a lethal dose of radiation. He discovers that the meteor is actually an alien device of some kind and takes it to the EDF for analysis.

It turns out that this device is a message transmitter showing the location of a planet called Iskandar. The military decides that since humanity can't hold out much longer, that they should send a ship manned with volunteers out to see what the message is all about. Oh, and they will lie to the public about it, saying that Iskander has a device that will eliminate the radiation from the Earth as a morale booster. This is not a spoiler as it is handed to the audience in the very beginning of the film. There will be none of that annoying "what will happen next" stuff here. More like "who will have a heartfelt discussion with whom".

After hearing that the EDF is looking for suckers - err, I mean volunteers, Kodai signs up with the EDF again. This puts him face to face with Captain Okita who was the only survivor of the last battle with the Gamilas, and who Kodai believes is responsible for his brother's dead. Oooooh, some drama comin'! Not only that, but Kodai's ex-subordinates, the Black Tiger squad, are a little cranky that he quit on them. Some more than others as far-too-pretty-to-be-such-a-badass, Yuki (Meisa Kuroki), slugs down both shots and men with equal enthusiasm. Oooooh, more drama comin'!

After literally resurrecting the Battleship Yamato from the Earth, the crew set out to find Iskandar. Just getting on the road proves difficult as the team need to take on a whole mess of Gamila fighters in an asteroid field that feels a bit like STAR WARS, but I'm pretty sure was inspired by "Star Fox 64". This fray ends up leaving Yuki unconscious in a wounded fighter. In order to save her, Kodai hops in a fighter flies above her and has her hit the ejection seat which launches her into space toward Kodai's ship that extends robot arms to catch her and keep her in place as they fly back to the Yamato. In space. When they get back on board the Yamato, Kodai feels that the best way to revive her is by screaming her name in her face.

Yep, played it too.

When this movie isn't cribbing its sense of reality from the anime, it borrows heavily from STAR TREK. In particular THE NEXT GENERATION. When the ship is hit by an enemy attack, sparks fly out of the ceiling and crew members are thrown around the bridge like they suddenly went on the Universal Tours Earthquake attraction. The ship's engineer is a fountain of wisdom and at one point he gives her all she's got, until it can't take any more (not in those exact words, but close). Also every scene is accompanied by melancholy violins and majestic swells and no situation is too urgent and dangerous for an emotional discussion about relationships. I'm sure a lot of this played better as an animated TV show, particularly the AI PDA that Kodai chats with and turns into a robot during a crucial moment. Also the final battle must have played better too as an anime as in a live action movie. I'd say it looks like someone has been playing too much "Halo", but it's probably more accurate to say that the folks at Bungee watched too much "Yamato".

"Halo" anyone?

It seems like, yet again, Toho is playing it safe. In the same way their recent GODZILLA films felt completely by-the-numbers, this too feels confined to a strict set of rules from which there will be no divergence. Granted, it does appear to be incredibly faithful to the source material, which is something Hollywood would have never done. Even so, it still feels like Hollywood in Asian-face. We get the generic Hollywood score that never picks up tempo even during action scenes, we have a BRAVEHEART speech when things are looking grim, we have the old conflict-turns-to-romance sub-plot, we have morality lessons and life lessons. We find out that with great power comes great... oh, you get the idea.

I think this illustrates the mindset of Toho vs. Toei. Toei has always been a bit of a risk taker. Retooling the beloved HARLOCK took balls, giving audiences exactly what Toei thought they wanted and then gambling on a darker, more adult vision of the amine. Sometimes a gamble doesn't pay off, but Toei is willing to take the risk and hope that baby gets a new pair of shoes. Toho gives exactly what they think audiences want and not a penny more. That said YAMATO was only just released this year in the US on DVD and blu-ray and it seems to have made a lot of American fans of STARBLAZER ecstatic. So if you grew up watching the show or just like emotional character dramas in space, there's a good chance it will fit you like a pair of well-worn space boots. All others take heed.

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