Thursday, August 25, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato (2010) review


Takuya Kimura (Susumu Kodai), Meisa Kuroki (Yuki Mori), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Captain Juzo Okita), Toshiro Yanagiba (Shiro Sanada), Naoto Ogata (Daisuke Shima), Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (Hajime Saito), Reiko Takashima (Dr. Sado)

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

The Short Version: Visionary director Yamazaki set sail with this enormously impressive and fairly faithful live action version of the popular adult oriented anime-manga of the same name. While the characterizations often run on fumes, the fuel of this film are the vast array of special effects that match anything seen in Hollywood today. Lots of cliffhanger moments enliven this epic 139 minute space opera that also bears the distinction of having a power ballad main theme both written and sung by Aerosmith's own Steven Tyler.

In 2199, the Earth has been turned into a barren, radioactive planet by the ruthless alien race, the Gamilas who continue to pummel the planet with poisonous bombs. The last remnants of mankind are forced underground to live out the remainder of their lives after a desperate, if valiant five year battle with the alien invaders. One day, a mysterious capsule crashes into the Earth. Scientists study the strange schematic and discover it comes from a faraway world known as Iscandar. The capsule contains data on the creation of a unique weapon as well as the application of warp speed and also the promise of a device that will remove the destructive radiation to enable the Earth to become a green, vibrant planet once more. Retrofitting Earth's last warship, the Yamato, with this new technology, a ragtag band of patriotic fighters make the journey for Iscandar in the hopes of saving the Earth and annihilating the dreaded Gamilas.

Visual mastermind, Takashi Yamazaki took command of this sprawling, epic Japanese spectacular that's a live action version of the celebrated anime-manga series of the same name from 1974. Known on these shores as STAR BLAZERS, this immensely successful series predated the likes of STAR WARS and the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA--the latter of which would seem to have been inspired by the storyline and designs of Leiji Matsumoto's original vision of the adult geared animated series. Incidentally, Matsumoto would likewise seem to have taken inspiration from Gene Roddenberry's heavily innovative original STAR TREK series with its nautical connotations and veritable war picture in space motif.

The Yamato takes flight

The Japanese are masters at creating innovative and peculiar designs for their science fiction shows and films. The Yamato space traveling warship melds modern and futuristic elements to create an attractive, unusual blueprint. Kinji Fukasaku must have been inspired by the original animated series space cruiser as he utilized a similar construct for his MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) with its rocket powered sailing vessel. Japanese anime and science fiction creators seemed fascinated with combining a touch of oldeworld craftsmanship with the ingenuity of advanced science. GALAXY EXPRESS 999 (1978) is another example of this with its outer space traveling train. It, too, is from the same designer of the original SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO anime series.

The Gamilas fleet engaged against Earth's defenses during the Mars battle that opens the film.

The crew of the Yamato bring a lost Gamilas ship aboard and confront its sole occupant.

Yamazaki is a talented and award winning filmmaker having directed the enormously entertaining science fiction action opus RETURNER (2002) starring international heartthrob, Takeshi Kaneshiro among others. Director Yamazaki often multi tasks on his pictures and YAMATO is no exception. For this auspicious and awe inspiringly ambitious film, Yamazaki also supervised the expansive amount of visual FX which includes an array of aerial dogfights, massive explosions and alien terrain. The film is fairly faithful to the series from the look of the ships to the costumes although there has been some tinkering such as the look of the Gamilas. On the cartoon they looked humanoid, but their cinematic counterparts bear a more organic, bio-mechanoid, alien appearance.

The giant Analyzer cuts loose with twin machine guns against hundreds of Gamilas creatures

The Analyzer has also been altered from his original design. Here, he's a small computer attached to Kodai's belt and doesn't assume his robotic form till towards the end and that, too, is changed. Now Analyzer the robot is about twenty to thirty feet tall. He also gets one of the best scenes during the underground siege on Iscandar.

The Yamato unleashes its weapons cache during a massive attack by Gamilas forces

Toho's SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO project is a milestone in the annals of Japanese cinema. One of the most notable aspects being its price tag of just under 24 million US looking like a hundred million which is generally thrown away on a Hollywood production. Yes, it's loaded down with enough CGI to fill a Federation starfleet, but these effects are amazingly accomplished and reportedly mixed with practical effects work. If true, it's difficult to tell what's live and what's done in the computer. And like bombastic Hollywood spectacles, YAMATO falters in the same areas--in its characterization.

Saito says his goodbyes to his mother back home on Earth

While it excels in melodramatics and speeches bursting with jingoism and bravado, the characters often suffer in capturing our sympathy. It's possible this 139 minute version was shorn of some additional exposition, but as it stands, the protracted moments that are supposed to rapture the audience often elicit little emotional impact. Oddly enough, there are a few brief scenes that are far more successful at garnering impassioned feelings from the viewer. One such indelibly memorable sequence is when the entire Yamato crew are given one minute to say their final farewell to their loved ones before the ship exits the solar system, thus cutting off all communication with the Earth. Another is a particularly tense moment during the subterranean battle beneath Iscandar when the Analyzer finally assumes his robot form, albeit a giant robot armed with some impressive hardware.

The interaction between Captain Okita and the hot headed and rebellious Kodai forms one of the most important arcs of the film, only they aren't given enough time to bloom. Instead we get patches of what could have been a fascinating father/son--love/hate relationship with both sharing a previous and future tortured moment of regret and sacrifice. What we get is enough to get the point across, but not enough to identify with them in a way that accentuates the far more dominating action set pieces.

The Kodai character also loses some vital exposition once the Earth Defense Force asks for volunteers with scientific and battle experience to take part in the journey to Iscandar. Kodai re-enlists and is almost immediately made Squadron Leader without any re-familiarization considering several years have passed since his last military tour which ended in a terrible disaster. During this "downtime", Kodai has made a meager living gathering and selling metal scrap so the fact that he would be given such a position so quickly without any sort of a training montage is a bit far reaching.

Kodai and crew prepare to land on the surface of Iscandar

It's possible some footage was cut out to streamline an already long movie, but as it is, Kodai is merely an efficient live action anime character who exists to provide the generously bloated proceedings with a brooding action hero capable of delivering adrenaline pumping 'do or die' speeches. The film moves at such a frenetic pace with its evenly and frequently placed action shots, you scarcely have time to let such details sink in. But again, it should be noted that this film is cramming an entire series worth of drama and majesty into a two and a half hour narrative. It's only logical that some expository angles--ever how vital they may be--will be lost in the shuffle.

Shima (left) tries to halt Kodai from attempting an emergency warp without the proper coordinates

Kodai is also given a romantic subplot with a fiesty fighter pilot named Yuki (played by the stunning Meisa Kuroki). Kuroki does little except look pretty and prove she can take care of herself in a fight. She plays the stereotypical 'lone wolf' who gets a few scenes to shine and show off her moves as one of the Black Tiger fighter pilots. A drawn out scene near the end demands a dramatic resonation with the audience, but neither roles emanate much in the way of chemistry for this potentially doomed love affair to pull at the audiences heartstrings. Of the two, Kimura gives his all for his role. Reportedly, Kimura sacrificed a portion of his price tag to provide an even more potent punch to the films visual palette.

Speaking of sacrifice, giving up ones life for the greater good is a major theme running through this movie. Nearly all the main players get an elaborate, often times poignant send off of one sort or another. Japanese movies thrive off such motifs and emblazon these moments with the most patriotic of speeches. The usage of the word Yamato has special significance in Japanese cultural and military history. During WW2 the naval battleship Yamato (along with another vessel christened the Musashi) was the most heavily armed and formidable warship ever created by man at the time. Despite it being sunk by the US naval fleet, the vessel was an impressive construct. Aside from the anime connection, the Yamato vessel was also featured in a giant monster movie entitled REIGO: THE DEEP SEA MONSTER VS. THE BATTLESHIP YAMATO from 2008.

Yuki takes on a fleet of Gamilas ships

The musical score by Naoki Sato is as boisterous as the film itself and sets the tone for mankind's last ditch efforts to save the Earth. Sato's cues also add a good deal more gravitas to the more stoic, if sometimes somber scenarios populating the script. Sato also refurbishes the original theme heard in the original anime series. For years, Japanese audiences have maintained a love affair with hair band style power ballads. On a few occasions, North American artists contributed songs to Japanese cinema such as John O'Banion on LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1984) and Jack Blades of Night Ranger on ULTRAMAN THE NEXT (2005). For YAMATO, Aerosmith's frontman Steven Tyler both wrote and sings the beautifully sappy ballad 'Love Lives' which is heard over the last scene and end credits of the film. The ending credits also feature some shots not seen in the movie.

The Gamilas, almost defeated, launch their final attack against both the Yamato and the Earth

The humans, led by Kodai, are attacked by hundreds of Gamilas below the surface of Iscandar

SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO took the Japanese box office by storm having torpedoed big ticket Hollywood productions such as HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS out of the top spot with a 12 million haul in its first week in only 440 Japanese theaters. This makes the news of the alleged and impending US remake all the more frustrating and perplexing. Like many other foreign productions of recent memory like THE RING (1999) and REC (2007), Hollywood refuses to bank on the original product deciding to instead buy the rights only to shelve the film till their own clone is prepped and ready for release. After that, it's safe to release the foreign acquisition straight to DVD so that casual buyers can mistakenly be led to believe there's yet another foreign imitation of an American movie out on the market.

This riveting Japanese space fantasy has far more characters than it knows what to do with in adapting a long running series into a two and a half hour movie, but it faithfully pays tribute to its source material in numerous ways. Judging by the frequency of its big action set pieces, it doesn't aspire to do more than entertain and it does so in a big and bombastic way. On that level YAMATO receives a medal of honor. Yamazaki's movie is full speed ahead action spectacle of the highest order and one that will appeal to science fiction fans and followers of the original and imported STAR BLAZERS version of the anime. If Japanese sci fi films are in your favor, man your battle stations and set a course for this exciting destination.

This review is representative of the Panorama R3 DVD

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