Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Film: Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato - In the Name of Love

Lowdown: A Japanese take on the Star Blazers’ Comet Empire story.
Review:
Back when I was about 10 years old, Star Blazers was all the rage. The 10 minute broadcast of half chapters on Monday and Thursday afternoon were all me and my compatriots at the time were talking and dreaming of.
Essentially a Japanese manga animation series, Star Blazers had two series-es that were broadcast on air in ancient Israel. Both told the story of the crew of the spaceship Argo, some 250 years into the future, as they fight evil villains wanting to take over the earth. The first series involved the planet Gamelon, led by Deslok, bombarding earth and killing it slowly after destroying the entire earth fleet; but then the Argo is found, and it flies across space for a year while defying all Gamelonian opposition to get the cure for earth’s problems. The second series featured the Argo a year later, when a new threat is there to enslave or annihilate the earth: Comet Empire. Again, it was the Argo that stood in its wake.
All of the above exposition is basically there to say that Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato – In the Name of Love (from henceforth: FSBY) is basically a new take on that second Star Blazers series. Essentially, it is like a director’s cut of the fight against Comet Empire. Having recently re-watched the entire Comet Empire series, I find that it is the differences between the two takes on the same story that I find most intriguing.
The two most obvious differences are the length and the language. The TV series I grew up on had around 20 episodes, each a bit longer than 20 minutes; the FSBY film is a bit longer than 2 hours. While a lot of overheads are cut with the lack of need to recount the happenings of the previous episode and the removal of the annoying narrator asking us if our heroes will make it to the next episode, there is an obvious dire need to get a move on with the plot. Indeed, if you do not know the characters or the setup look no further, because you won’t have a clue as to what is going on here (or you might have some because it’s not rocket science, but it won’t be the same).
The second major difference between the TV series and the film is the language. While the TV series helped me learn my first words in English and featured heroes such as Derek Wildstar, Mark Venture and Nova, the FSBY film speaks Japanese with subtitles; Wildstar is now Kudai and Nova has been demoted to become Yuki. Plus, every voice now sounds the same (with the slight exception of Yuki).
Thing is, it’s not only the language that has changed between the versions. It’s also the culture; I am left to wonder whether the TV series from my childhood days is but an Americanized version of the Japanese version. Let me now explain why this seems to be the case.
The first item on the agenda is nudity. In the West, nudity and animation don’t go together; animation is kids’ domain. Not so in Japan, where nudity is rife within the realm on the manga. It’s not like FSBY is pornographic, it’s just that certain female characters that used to have clothes on in the TV series lose their clothes in FSBY.
Then there are the plot differences between the two versions. In FSBY, people die left and right; people from the “good” side; central characters. In fact, most of the cast does not make it through the film. The ending is also severely different: FSBY ends in a rather poetic / lyrical way, not your average happy ending from the TV series.
All of these slight differences lead to one conclusion that explains exactly why I have spent so many words comparing a TV series to a film without really reviewing the film: It is the cultural differences between the American minded TV series and the Japanese oriented film that I find the most interesting to take from the film. Sometimes these differences are obvious, as in the case of handling nudity, while other times they could slip under the carpet. It took those big differences for me to realize that the way the different characters were operating was all about being Japanese: the obedience and the reverence to the leader, the way orders are carried through and through, and the kamikaze like way in which some of the characters end their career in the film. If there is anything I took out of watching FSBY, it is those cultural differences; the fact I wouldn’t have noticed them without watching the TV series first is the reason why I went to such great lengths in discussing them.
But now let us talk about FSBY as a film by its own rights. Well, what can I say? It is not the perfect film ever, even if the plot is very thrilling (if space battles such as sneak attacks by space submarines do it for you; they certainly do it for me) and the whole setup is full of imagination (e.g., space submarines). For a start, the film doesn’t really stand on its own; it is in such a hurry to progress the thick plot that characters are very underdeveloped.
Second, the film follows the series so closely, that events which took place in the series and lose their meaning in the context of the film due to the slight plot alterations are still very much in the film. This doesn’t only sound stupid, it is very stupid! Add to that some severe continuity issues, like the Argo getting torn apart in one scene only to go into battle with guns a-blazing in the next scene, and you have quite a problematic film on your hands. As a child I couldn’t care less about such things, but now I find them to be a pain.
The animation is obviously pre-Pixar quality. For a start, movement is very juddery instead of the smooth standards we’re used to today. However, the most obvious shortcut is the use of one still image with the camera panning across it for a while, creating the illusion of movement when the only movement is that of the camera itself. If there is some movement, it is usually in the fashion of one foreground drawing moving across a background drawing. While it may sound as if I’m mocking the animation here I’m actually trying to do the opposite: I find it amazing how effective and seemingly rich the animation can be while still using such simple techniques.
Overall, I have to say FSBY is a rather lackluster film; it is the plot that saves the day to make it an entertaining film to watch. In addition, the direction of the film – given all the above mentioned issues – is simply superb, with some of the key scenes being of true high impact.
Best scene: The standoff between Wildstar and the previously defeated Deslok would not have felt out of place in films like High Noon. It is very well done indeed.
Overall: It is very hard for me to rate anything to do with Star Blazers objectively as this is the stuff my childhood was all about. By my current standards FSBY is a very flawed film, yet with all the observations mentioned in the review I really enjoyed watching it in this day and age. Call it a very personal 3 out of 5 stars.

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