Sometimes it feels like I’ve been watching anime for all my life, and forget that it wasn’t until college that I became a fan. I may have seen snippets of Pokemon, Digimon, and Sailor Moon on TV while growing up, but never a whole series. I missed out on a lot of great shows that came out in the 90s and earlier, including the original 1974-1975 Space Battleship Yamato, later brought to America in 1979 and adapted as Star Blazers.
Another reason for my late discovery of the series was that despite occasionally reading science fiction, I never attempted to seek out the genre in anime. I equated space settings with mecha, an area I thought held nothing of interest to me. Stellvia of the Universe was my first foray into a spaceship and, flawed as it was, the show still holds a dear place in my heart. Along with Cowboy Bebop, these shows opened up an entire frontier for me still unexplored and limitless. Space Battleship Yamato 2199, a 2012-2013 remake of the original series, carries on that adventurous spirit with respect and optimism, and has easily become one of my favorite Sci-Fi works.
Before I get too far into my thoughts on 2199, I would be remiss to neglect discussion about the original series and its many sequels and spin-offs. It’s impossible for me to go into much detail since I have not seen any of these works, but cursory reading reveals that there are several differences between Yamato and Yamato 2199. The biggest change that jumped out at me was the lack of female crew aboard the Yamato in the 1974 series—the sole exception is the character of Mori Yuki. She started as Dr. Sado’s nurse instead of immediately on the bridge operating radar, and was the main source of fan service. Many of her scenes featured an oddly lecherous Analyzer, who also changed for the better in the remake.
I applaud the decision to vary up Yamato’s crew with women. It not only levels Earth’s representation of humanity, but also better represents our modern times and hopeful view for the future. Gender equality is still a cause to be supported no matter how much we’ve improved on our past, and I would hope that a future with the capability of terraforming other planets would include a society with equal opportunity for all.
Despite the changes in casting, Yamato then and now still stands out among other works in its genre and the medium as a whole. Good stories have a way of lasting the test of time, proving their worth now just as they did in the past. Yamato is one such work with an intricate yet cohesive story line that weaves together multiple characters, worlds, and plots. Actions result in serious consequences. It’s for this reason that every space battle has meaning; I feel genuine concern for the crew’s well being. The Yamato doesn’t win every battle, nor does it follow an interrupted upward streak after one loss. Every fight costs them something, whether it’s lives or precious time.
One of the key differences about the Yamato versus others of its battleship class is its mission. Despite the devastating power of the Wave Motion Cannon, they use the gun primarily for defense. The crew is not on a journey to discover other planets, nor take revenge for the damage done to Earth. They must follow the tentative promise of a planet far, far away with the capability to revive Earth’s dying ecosystem. Time and distance are against them; side trips, personal or otherwise, only increase their chances of failure. The timer ticks through every episode, heightening the stress and stretching the tension. Somehow through it all, we still make our way to new worlds and find joy in everyday activities like eating and sharing a bottle of sake. They’re all part of what makes us human and able to persevere through the most dire of circumstances.
In addition to the well crafted plot, the series also includes two exceptional art pieces. The first is episode nine, “A Clockwork Prisoner,” where Yamato repairs and experiments with a Gamillan android. Analyzer takes point in the interactions, accompanied by Misaki’s storytelling, and displays a surprising depth of feeling in his curiosity, excitement, and caution. He even goes as far as to give the android a name, “Alter.” Listening to them exchange questions and answers and seeing Alter’s self-awareness begin to emerge even in a reprogrammed state makes you wonder about the definition of a soul. In hindsight, I should not have been so surprised at the A.I. discourse, with works like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien hinging around the valuable roles of artificial intelligence in space exploration. This episode can almost stand alone as a one-shot, yet it’s placed between a pivotal victory by Yamato over the Gamillans and a temporary ceasefire with a Gamillas pilot and her battleship.
Why the creators chose to place Alter’s story between these two Gamillas confrontations may have had to do with the idea that if we can empathize with an expressionless, yet seemingly lonely android, we should be able to do even more for a humanoid species that looks and acts like us. They feel the same emotions we do, and treasure many of the same ideals. Their blue skin and Fascist government may make them our enemies, but that doesn’t mean common ground, perhaps even peace, cannot be found. Gamillans are not any different from humans on a genetic level, and plenty of unjust governments have been overthrown; who’s to say the same isn’t possible for Gamillan leadership?
Episode 14, “The Witch Whispers,” also stood out from the series as a dreamscape that occurs in the midst of one of Yamato’s most trying times. Like with “A Clockwork Prisoner,” there’s a clear sense of otherness. You almost feel like you’re in another piece of work entirely. In it, Gamillas leader, Lord Deslar, devises a plan to trap Yamato using the two Jirels under his command. Celestella and Mirenel are the last known remaining members of a telepathic race wiped out by those fearful of their powers.
While out on a reconnaissance mission, Kodai and Mori notice something amiss with their ship. They return to investigate and discover Yamato’s crew missing and her technology offline. The two are then separated and trapped inside their minds—Kodai with his long-dead family, and Mori in the aftermath of the car crash that wiped her of her memories. They face indecision about the home and people left behind. As they confront their pasts and remember each other, Kodai and Mori break through Mirenel’s control and regain command of the Yamato. Despite the confusion of their encounter, the reminder of those they hold dear reignite the crew’s resolve to complete their mission.
A large part of what fascinated me so much with this episode was not only the artistic way in which it was drawn and written, but also how it compared Jirels to humans. As the survivors of an extinct people, Celestella and Mirenel should sympathize with those about to lose their home; instead, they serve the Gamillans who tout genocide. Jirels were annihilated for their telepathic capabilities, yet use them here to attack those unable to protect themselves. As repulsed as I am about Mirenel and Celestella’s actions, I also feel sorry for them. In a twisted way, their choice to trap Yamato’s crew in treasured memories instead of nightmares reveals their kindness and sorrow. They may have no option but to obey the Gamillans, but they at least can go about it in their own way.
It’s in this episode where we also get a real sense of the “goddess” who roams Yamato’s hallways, the same goddess who spoke with Alter. Her control of Misaki’s body allows her to resist Mirenel’s mental advances and gives Kodai and Mori the hints they need to break free of their cages. These fantastical elements start to give Project Yamato a sense of destiny greater than the physical urgency that pushes them forward. Their journey brings together peoples of different races and sets up a stage for Earth’s involvement on a universal scale beyond their planet’s revival.
My connection to the show and Yamato’s mission would not be as strong as it is without its nuanced characters. It’s of course easy to sympathize with Earth and Yamato’s crew, but there are still factions on board the ship with questionable motivations and intentions. While I like Information Chief Niimi, it’s clear from the beginning that she hides something connected to her stubborn support of Project Izumo, a terminated plan to relocate Earth’s citizens to a similar planet. Shinya Itou, Chief Security Officer, is unlikable from the start with his fake smile and condescending dialogue, especially towards robots and other species. Then there are the heroes, the obvious “good guys” who lead the crew with steadfast determination. Kodai and Shima are an unbreakable duo, yet even they come head to head under threat of mutiny. Captain Okita repeatedly references the lies he keeps from his crew. None of them are fully transparent to the viewer at the start.
The women who were rewritten and added in Yamato 2199 bring a solid amount of substance to the the cast. They count as members in multiple departments, including Chief positions, and do much to counter the discrimination and misgivings of the rest of Yamato’s crew. Of particular note are pilots Akira Yamamoto and Melda Deitz. While both are aliens to Earth, one of human-Martian descent and the other Gamillan, they start off distrustful of one another. With time and communication, they not only call a truce, but become close friends and rivals through the end of the series. Their unparalleled skills as fighter pilots save Yamato more than once, and they help the crew open up to the idea of peace among other planets. In the original run, Akira and Melda were both males, one sharing the same name and the other nameless with a much smaller part. The choice to switch their genders and elaborate on their roles now seems unquestionable; I can’t image the story without them exactly the way they are.
I can’t help but have my favorites among the other alien species, too, including those fighting under Gamillas. There’s Schultz, a secondary Gamillas citizen due to his Zaltzi heritage, who commands the forces on Pluto shooting the planet bombs that have destroyed Earth’s ecosystems. His loyalty to his own people and love for his family are immediately apparent. I feel for his frustration against his prejudiced Gamillan superiors, and wish he could leave active service to be with his daughter. While he may not take it easy on Yamato, he does exhibit a small level of regret that Earth will not submit like Zaltz for the sake of its people to Gamillas rule.
General Domel is another Gamillan who garners respect and admiration for his tactical skills and conduct. He may hold unwavering loyalty to a misguided regime, but he still pays his dues to opponents and comrades alike on the battlefield in a manner befitting a general. If there’s anyone who should have been leader of Gamillas, it’s Erich Domel. His complete disinterest in politics would have been a fresh face to Gamillan leadership.
The relatabilty of the characters and concerns for Earth’s survival feel extremely pertinent to today. The improvements made upon the work speak to a wider range of viewers encompassing gender, age, and ethnicity, and pulls inspiration from multiple genres. Space Battleship Yamato 2199 takes an established classic and turns it into something even better and longer lasting. I want to thank Vucub (Twitter: @vucub_) for turning me onto the anime, and will in kind turn around and encourage you to watch it for yourself if you haven’t already.
Rating: 3 dango
EDIT (11/9/2017): You can now start watching Yamato on Crunchyroll! The first episode episode is up under the American title of Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199.
- 0 dango – average and forgettable.
- 1 dango – very good in its category.
- 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
- 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.