I was a Star Blazers kid. I can still vividly remember, 33 years later, the way my homeward bound elementary school bus boarded at 2:05pm, leading to a neverending series of anxious rides home. After all, Star Blazers started at 2:30, and I couldn't afford to miss a single minute! I would dash home off the bus, usually making it just in time for the show's eminently sing-a-longable opening. When I missed the first minute or two, I was crestfallen; after all, my family couldn't afford one of those newfangled VCRs to tape TV shows for later viewing, and who knows if or when the show would re-run?
Decades and a generation later, Star Blazers has returned, ostensibly to lure a new wave of fans into Yoshinobu Nishizaki's signature tale of heroism, camaraderie, sacrifice, and romance-- on a battleship. A famous battleship, that flies in space. It seems ludicrous at first, but it's amazing how the formula totally, absolutely works. It's doubly amazing, because with Star Blazers, aka Space Battleship Yamato, being far and away producer/creator Nishizaki's biggest hit, he's made attempts to revive it before-- and it hasn't always worked, not at all.
At first, Nishizaki kept his golden goose alive with gimmickry, most memorably with Be Forever Yamato, which featured a mid-movie switch from VistaVision to to the much wider CinemaScope. The franchise looked ready to hang it up after the watchable but bloated Final Yamato (at 165 minutes, still the longest animated feature film on record), but the producer would revive it in the early 90s with Yamato 2520, an aborted OVA series notable for releasing an “episode zero” production diary to raise additional funds… to finish that first episode, obviously! By the time Space Battleship Yamato: Resurrection hit theaters in 2009, fans were no longer really expecting quality, which made the pretty damn good film (licensed in 2012, but puzzlingly yet unreleased by Funimation) a very pleasant surprise. Momentum from that movie fed straight into a solid and popular Yamato live-action movie, which made the following Yamato 2199 something of a foregone conclusion.
The bones of Yamato 2199 aren't all that different from its storied predecessor; in the far future year of 2199, Earth is under siege from mysterious, hostile invaders. After a hard-fought battle off of Mars successfully repels the enemies’ capital ships, they resort to carpeting Earth with meteor bombs, blighting the surface and pushing the human race close to extinction. But a mysterious message is received from an alluring blonde alien woman: “Come to planet Iscandar, and I'll give you what you need to cleanse the Earth.” Using blueprints from the alien Starsha and pushing their own scientific know-how to the limits, the Earth forces build a mighty new vessel in the shell of the famous Yamato, Japan's monstrous, doomed WWII super-battleship.
First of all, Yamato 2199 isn't exactly what I'd think of as a reboot; it's more of a remake. There are some new characters and situations, but the heroes are ultimately very similar to their 1970s predecessors, particularly the gruff, taciturn Captain Okita. At the same time, Yamato 2199 doesn't slavishly recreate the look and feel of the original TV series - this new version looks sleek, modern, and cool on a level that a lot of retro-remakes fail to achieve. Instead of broad “gotcha!” style references and shot-for-shot reducia of the original, Yamato 2199 warmly embraces key moments, and finds subtle ways to make them new again. We can ascribe that to director Yutaka Izubuchi, who once again dons an impressive variety of hats: he handles the series composition, its general look and tone; he draws storyboards; he turns in scripts for several episodes; and he even handles some of the mecha design, alongside luminaries like Makoto “Giant Robo” Kobayashi and Kimitoshi “Gundam Seed” Yamane. Izubuchi has won acclaim for his versatility, and he's an ideal choice here, given that he more or less steps into the shoes of the original show's Leiji Matsumoto, who handled a similar set of creative duties. Most importantly, Izubuchi really seems to “get” Yamato—he understands the elements of action, science fiction, and melodrama that make it great, and knows how to combine them in new ways.
Actually, one aspect of Izubuchi's new look for Yamato 2199 has proven a bit divisive-- the stately and terrifyingly destructive spacebound ship battles. Here, they're rendered entirely in CG, a look that will seem jarring to fans who grew up on the original. I actually think the staff does a great job of blending the 3D CG with 2D character animation, a balancing act that isn't always that easy to pull off. The Earth fleet vessels and the latest version of the iconic Yamato look great, as do the ships of the invading Gamilas. One instance where I definitely prefer the original, though? The ship's bridge. It still looks good, of course, but I kinda miss the huge glowing dials and globes of the Matsumoto version. Don't worry, though—the robotic Analyzer looks just as cool as he did in 1974. I'm also impressed with the way character designer Nobuteru Yuuki has updated the look of the crew—like the rest of the staff, he does a very impressive job of updating the original stuff without getting too radical about it.
As for the actual heroes of Yamato 2199 (this is a show that doesn't have too many absolute villains— the Gamilas antagonists are often noble warriors driven to desperation), they're recognizable, but have some subtle tweaks. Like I said earlier, the stoic, bearded Captain Okita is the most unchanged. His subordinate, Susumu Kodai, is missing some of the fire of the original (there, Kodai disliked the captain, and blamed him for his brother's death; not so in this version), but his friendship and hapless romantic rivalry with fellow officer Daisuke Shima is intact. The object of their rivalry, Yuki Mori, was graceful and demure in the original series. Here, she seems smarter and more assertive, but a bit less approachable—at first, she spurns both men, declaring them narcissists! That's one thing I dig in particular about Yamato 2199—not only does it make Yuki more important to the story, it introduces several new female characters, from the bubbly nurse Harada to the taciturn pilot Yamamoto. O.G. Yamato was long on manly romance, but kinda short on actual female characters. It's good that they've given it that upgrade.
Now I need to address the elephant in the room: the show's availability and presentation on disc. It's bothered me that Yamato 2199, a series that debuted in 2012, has taken so long to make its way westward. It's a particularly fine show that would've benefited from a streaming release, or a licensing partnership with an American publisher. As it is, quite a few western Yamato fans in the know have just opted to buy up the Japanese blu-rays, which come with English subtitles. There is a notable advantage to this release, though—it's cheaper. Even at $44.99 per disc on bluray for six volumes, it still beats out Japan's seven-volume set, which clocks in at around ¥6000 each for the standard editions. But you're still paying around three hundred bucks for a bare-bones set of discs—there are no extras with this first disc beyond a (admittedly very nice) set of three art cards. The $45 (or $35, if you opt for DVD) is a high bar, and a hard barrier to break through if you're new to Yamato.
The other thing is, there's simply no reason for Voyager Entertainment USA to have called this series Star Blazers 2199. The original Star Blazers is an unexpectedly excellent and well-remembered adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato, but decades later, the brand has lost just about all of its cachet, buried under a pile of crude, unremastered, expensive DVD releases. It's certainly no deal-breaker, but opting to use the name of a version of the series that's completely fallen out of the public consciousness (meanwhile, the Space Battleship Yamato name has some recognition, thanks to the live-action film) is, like the disc release scheme itself, something of a head-scratcher. And don't let the name fool you—there's no Americanized dub here, only the Japanese version with the original character names.
Yamato 2199 starts with a slow burn, but as the titular space battleship rises into space, the series finds its stride and only gains momentum. In spite of being familiar with the old story's twists and turns, I found myself once again being carried away by the Star Force's desperate mission, buoyed by their courage, transfixed by the show's tension and space battles, and fascinated with the multifaceted antagonists, the Gamilas. The old fan in me can appreciate its similarities to the original classic, and the voracious fan inside—the one who'll watch anything once—is also sated by the new hotness that this excellent SF series brings to the table. Courtesy of Yutaka Izubuchi and his crew of geniuses, Yamato 2199 walks a tightrope between generations, and does it with nary a slip or tremor.