Friday, August 02, 2013

JFFSF ’13: Space Battleship Yamato

Some might know this franchise as Star Blazers.  For many Americans, it was their first introduction to anime and is considered an influence on several subsequent sci-fi series, including Battlestar Galactica.  Leiji Matsumoto and Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s space opera finally gets the live action treatment with Takashi Yamazaki’s Space Battleship Yamato (trailer here), which has its West Coast premiere this Sunday during the 2013 Japan Film Festival of San Francisco.

So far, the future is a serious bummer.  A ruthless alien race known as Gamilas have rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable through their constant bombardment and it is only a matter of time before the radiation reaches the subterranean settlements.  The opening space battle is an unqualified disaster for Earth, with only the flagship Yamato surviving, thanks to the noble sacrifice of Captain Mamoru Kodai and the crew of the Yukikaze.  Kodai’s younger brother Susumu does not quite see it that way.  He bitterly and vocally rails against Captain Okita and his alleged cowardice.  As a result, it is a little awkward when he re-enlists for a last ditch mission on the Yamato.

It seems the Gamila are not alone in their far corner of the universe.  The mysterious people of Iskandar have sent Earth a warp engine schematic and a vague invitation.  Seizing on Iskandar as a symbol of hope, Okita leads the Yamato where no man has gone before.  Of course, it will hardly be a smooth trip.  Kodai will clash Hepburn-and-Tracy style with Yuki Mori, the leader of the Black Tiger fighter pilots, while the Gamilas harass the ship every step of the way.

A big budget production, the live action Yamato boasts some legitimately impressive space battles.  In an odd contrast, some of the Earthly sets look rather flimsy, but fans should find the spirit mostly in keeping with the original series and successive features and reboots. In fact, sacrifice is a conspicuous theme in Yamazaki’s film, even though such plot developments were occasionally walked back in the television productions as a result of viewer feedback.

TV star-making-the-feature-transition Takuya Kimura is reasonably solid as the Maverick-esque Kodai and Meisa Kimura makes a credible and engaging action figure as Mori.  Tsutomu Yamazaki (so wise and graceful as the old encoffineer in Departures) has the right commanding presence for Okita, but he is overly done-up, looking like he and his beard might feel at home on a bottle of aftershave.  Still, there are some distinctive supporting turns amongst the crew, including Ip Man alumnus Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as the hardcore commando Hajime Saito and Naoto Ogata as the devoted family man navigator, Daisuke Shima.

In an odd bit of equal opportunity casting, the film pulls a gender switch on Dr. Sado, evidently to demonstrate women are just as capable of aimlessly staggering about the ship with a bottle of sake as any man. (Right, so don’t get sick on the Yamato.)  Nevertheless, all the essential elements are there.  Yamazaki has a good sense of when to crank up the Kirkian melodrama and when to dial it down.  As a result, Space Battleship Yamato is pretty consistently entertaining military science fiction with somewhat apocalyptic overtones.  Recommended for franchise fans, it screens this Sunday (8/4) at the New People Cinema in San Francisco.