You get what you pay for and in cinematic terms the currency, as everyone should know, is genre. If you go to see a big budget action movie, you should probably expect a big budget action movie and all that entails, and you really shouldn’t complain if you get it. In my opinion, it’s important to be clear on this concept; that way you don’t end up sitting behind me in the cinema making annoying pseudo-intellectual comments about a) the flawed science, b) the silly decisions made or c) the inequality of the gender roles, and doing your best to ruin for me what was actually a pretty enjoyable genre movie.
And live action extravaganza Space Battleship Yamato is enjoyable – highly so. First and foremost, the most enjoyable thing, or at the very least the most pleasantly surprising thing about it are the performances; primarily Kimura Takuya (Love and Honor, 2046) who plays the hero Kodai, and the utterly magnificent Tsutomu Yamazaki (Departures, Tampopo, Kagemusha) in the role of the gruff, aging Captain Okita. The film relies on (and quite frankly is right to rely on) these two fine actors, and even in the face of swishy hair and numerous clichés, they still manage to make something that could have been highly ridiculous into something that has a surprising amount of dignity and depth. For a genre film.
The story opens at the moment of defeat for the beleaguered Earth forces in their battle against mysterious invading aliens they’ve named Gamilas. For five years, Gamilas have been bombarding the planet with nuclear bombs. The earth is a radiation zone from pole to pole and humanity has fled deep underground. This counterstrike off Mars is probably their last hope, but the Gamilas forces are far superior and the fleet is pretty much doomed. When the damaged Yukikaze and its captain Mamoru Kodai makes the ultimate sacrifice to cover the retreat of the only remaining ship, it’s all over bar the shouting.
Or is it? On earth, a junk collector is knocked out by what seems to be falling debris, until it is discovered that the debris is actually a message sent from deep within the Large Magellanic Cloud that outlines both the sender’s location and the plans for a powerful new warp drive. Fast forward a little and the alien warp drive is installed in the battleship Yamato, and surviving fleet Captain Okita conceives of a mission – to travel to the co-ordinates in the message and find a way to combat the radiation poisoning the planet. When he calls for volunteers, the self same junk collector, Susumu Kodai re-enlists in the forces in order to discover what manner of man could have possibly allowed his beloved older brother to die.
It’s this drama that is at the heart of the film – earth’s last gasp notwithstanding – and it gives the film, for want of a better term, a backbone. The friends Kodai reunites with, the girl he clashes with, and the challenges he faces as stand-in Captain would be nothing without this quest of his to understand how such a sacrifice can be made – the few for the many, and of course, he must come to realise that the only way to understand such decisions is to be forced to make them yourself. It’s idealism versus reality as much as it’s humans versus Gamilans, and it gives pretty much everything that’s important in the film the kind of weight that, at the very least, elevates it just slightly above the film the person behind me was clearly watching. Maybe if they’d stopped commenting for long enough, they would have realised that.
Of course, the commentary did conspicuously stop during the more dramatic moments. Clearly it’s impossible even for a cynical movie goer not to get just a little sucked in by the dramatic powering up of the warp drive/super cannon system. And if you remember the original Star Blazers anime, you’ll remember that no matter how many times the Yamato faced enemy fighters on all sides (often) and defended itself with on-board guns, well, blazing in all directions while it desperately tried to find a way out of its predicament, it was still one of the most impressive and exciting moments you’d seen on tv all week. The live action version doesn’t just nod in that direction; it pulls out all the stops, and sure, it is a little bit Battlestar Galactica reboot, but honestly, I’d like to point out, where do you think BG got the idea for in the first place if not from Space Battleship Yamato? A clunky, rusting 15,000 tonne space craft warping through a planet in the middle of a battle is something that kind of never gets old. Unless you’re one of those people who think it’s entertaining to pick apart a film outside of the privacy of your own living room.
And unless you’re one of those people, you’ll probably be just fine about having to take the cool with the not-so-cool. As if to try and balance out the epicness of the battle scenes and the critical importance of the mission, the more personal drama on board the Yamato is sometimes a little bit on the heavy-handed side (understatement), and certainly the plot developments are predictable even if you hadn’t been a fan of the original. And really, don’t get me started on those gender inequalities or even logical character progression because when I think about the way that a perfectly tough, by the book, hard-drinking, plain-talking female pilot goes from Starbuck version two to helpless tears in 131 minutes, it makes me a little mad, just not enough to share my opinion between when the curtain opens and closes with a bunch of strangers who haven’t actually asked for it.
Space Battleship Yamato isn’t perfect. Of course it’s not. But then again I didn’t expect it to be, and having made my peace with that what I did expect is exactly what I got plus a little more. It’s a choice, you see. You can choose to go to a big budget action movie and you can choose to enjoy it and find the good about it instead of focusing on the bad. Or you can choose not to sit behind me. In fact, I’d really appreciate it.