The Mike Toole Show
Searching for Star Blazers
by Mike Toole,
I tried to be patient for Star Blazers 2199. I skipped out on pirating the series; that's not really something I do anymore, unless the title in question only ever came out on VHS in 1988. When Voyager Entertainment endeavored to release it in North America in 2014, I gritted my teeth at the high prices and decided to hold out for a sale or box set. If nothing else, I figured that the show would end up streaming somewhere or another. After all, everything else is streaming, even if Amazon hides it behind a paywall or Netflix makes us wait several months, right? A few years down the road, I've finally recently finished watching Yutaka Izubuchi and XEBEC's fine remake of the immortal classic Space Battleship Yamato, courtesy of the one and only territory to get the entire series on Blu-Ray outside of Japan: Italy.
It's always an adventure to try a release of your favorite anime from another territory. Will your console or player be able to handle whatever region code wackiness is in play? Will the movie look great, but the extras look kinda weird because they're all standard-definition fare in PAL format? If you're buying DVD, will the show look a little loopy because of a suspect NTSC-to-PAL-to-NTSC conversion? That's not even getting into issues of subtitles (Dynit's Italian Star Blazers 2199 release only has Italian subs – nessun problema if you're good with romance languages, but tough to read for uncivilized brutes like me), dubs (I liked the Yamato crew voices a lot, but the bad guys always have this stiff, gravelly delivery. I'm probably just not used to hearing Italian spoken…), and whatever it takes to get the show shipped from overseas to your neck of the woods intact. After tremendously enjoying Star Blazers 2199 (sorry, I'm going to slavishly use that title instead of Yamato 2199, because it's all over the damn packaging!), I'm left with one question: why did I have to wait years and eventually import a top-notch remake of one of the most beloved anime series of all time?
The answer isn't all that obvious. While original Space Battleship Yamato creator and producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki was bullish about getting his creation on the airwaves in the west, the whole home video situation in North America never seemed as good as it could have been. For many years, Nishizaki's friend Barry Winston ran Voyager Entertainment USA, keeping the dubbed TV series and subtitled movies in print, in audio/video quality that ranged anywhere from “ugh” to “meh.” This didn't keep me from clamoring to see it all back in the 90s; I'd grown up with the show, and looked back at the experience of booking it home from school to see the latest episode (after all, if you missed it, you might never get a chance to see it again!) with nostalgia.
I do have one apocryphal story to relate, and it's killing me that I can't find the original email containing this anecdote. Apparently, back during the height of the DVD boom in the mid-2000s, one of those big-box retailers that likes to use the color blue approached Voyager Entertainment and asked the publisher to create an inexpensive Star Blazers TV box set for them to sell. Yes, one of the biggest retailers in North America apparently went to Voyager with hat in hand, just begging for something that they'd undoubtedly sell thousands of. It never happened, though, and for the rest of their print run, Voyager's Star Blazers DVDs remained expensive, mediocre-quality, and a pain in the ass to find.
When Space Battleship Yamato 2199 started its release in 2012, the presence of English subtitles on the Japanese Blu-Ray version was eyebrow-raising. English subs on Japanese BDs are usually reserved for either Studio Ghibli films, or catalog re-releases of popular classics. High-quality subtitles on the Yamato 2199 BDs seemed to hint at a conservative, stay-at-home strategy for Voyager. This seemed to be borne out by the fact that there was no news of an overseas release for a good year. Then, the Star Blazers 2199 situation happened.
(As an aside, does anyone else think the whole “2199” thing in the title is kinda goofy? I've never been big on attaching a date to a title in this fashion, because it just means that they're gonna have to go back and change the title in the year 2199, just like how we totally had to change the title of Bronx Warriors 1990 and Space: 1999.)
The whole Star Blazers 2199 situation started with the franchise's official English-language website, starblazers.com, more or less vaporizing in 2012. This was alarming, because the site had been stuffed top to bottom with exceptional content courtesy of superfan and real-deal cartoon director Tim Eldred—everything from old interviews and reports to original webcomics had been created for the site under TIM's watch. TIM even found time to produce a really solid documentary about Yamato for Voyager back in the mid-2000s. Later, the site gradually returned, mainly as a vehicle to hawk Star Blazers DVDs. But it promised important announcements! Meanwhile, TIM promptly shifted his massive trove of Yamato data to Cosmo DNA, where it remains to this day. (Careful clicking that link! If you love Star Blazers trivia, you'll lose entire days reading the articles there.)
In 2013, things finally started happening. First of all, Voyager screened a dubbed pilot episode of Yamato 2199, which they'd produced with Production I.G and Bang Zoom, at both Anime Expo and the San Diego Comicon. For the first time, they used the Star Blazers 2199 title, which prompted some alarm among fans—were they going to retain the original show's endearingly corny naming scheme? The eventual subtitled release didn't have any changes from the Japanese original, but I never did get to see that dubbed episode. I was actually at Anime Expo 2013, but either didn't notice the show on the schedule, or saw the listing and figured I'd just get to see it later. Don't do what I did, gang. Always drop everything and rush across the show floor for this stuff, because you might never get to see it again!
Then, late in 2013, there was a big surprise on Voyager's Japanese-language Nico Nico webcast, hosted by the Yamato girls, a troupe of models dressed as the show's heroines. They introduced a new member of the gang who'd be the official Yuki Mori girl: pinup model Shiori Kawana, who announced a major update for starblazers.com, including Blu-Ray and DVD release plans for Star Blazers 2199! She did this in English, by the way. On a webcast that was mostly only known to Japanese fans. Oh, well. Shortly thereafter, Kawana started hosting short little YouTube videos that looked kinda like this:
Seems pretty awkward, right? I've never been a fan of the whole “pretty girl holds up printed sign to the camera” approach to producing these silly little hosted specials, but it's right in line with the way the Japanese Yamato Girls webcasts look. I liked Kawana an awful lot-- she did her best with what was obviously a pretty goofy situation, both writing content for the English-language site and hosting a number of these videos. Sometime in 2014, the entire thing abruptly disappeared, including all of the videos and photos of Kawana as Yuki. Save those YouTube videos, kids! Otherwise, you might never get a chance to see them again!
These updates were swiftly followed by a rather pricey ($44.95/disc) home video release, subtitled-only. That release was initially only available via starblazers.com, who also charged a hefty shipping fee before fan outcry made them back off a bit. Fan outcry revved right back up later that year, when the release was abruptly cancelled, after several volumes had already been published. To this day, starblazers.com stands as a monument to rushed production and misplaced optimism. It's been “temporarily suspended” for two years now.
It sucks that Star Blazers 2199 is such a challenge to pick up, because the series itself is nothing less than a blueprint for making a top-notch remake of an old classic. The redux is gorgeous, coherent, and perfectly paced courtesy of writer/director Izubuchi. There's a larger cast and bigger scope to the story, plus a nice, even mixture of new ideas and “oh man, I remember this episode…” moment, like that awesome part where one of the Garmillas generals fires a big-ass rocket that drills into the Wave Motion Gun's barrel. Actually, the bad guy was the best general, Domel. Here's a picture of him from the original series, composing a message to his wife on his futuristic space typewriter.
Since 2199 did quite well, by all accounts, the eventual release of a sequel felt like a foregone conclusion. We're now partway through Star Blazers 2202 (as I noted earlier, that “Star Blazers” name is right on the Japanese box, an interesting change from the Yamato 2199 release), with the next film dropping in the fall. I'm really intrigued by Voyager's release model for these new shows. First, they're released as compilation movies, with one really interesting feature: if you go to one of the ten or fifteen theatres showing the new movie, you can buy the Blu-Ray on your way out. This is something that's been discussed in Hollywood, but never really attempted. I suppose the specter of piracy is what keeps this model from getting a look elsewhere. We can tell that Space Battleship Yamato fans love to buy stuff, however, because of all the damn stuff that's available to buy!
The thing is, overseas fans quickly discovered one big detail about Space Battleship Yamato 2202 BDs: they had no subtitles, English or otherwise. To me, this felt like a hint: no more subtitles on the Japanese release, “Star Blazers” on the box and promotional materials… maybe a western release really is imminent! In a summer 2016 interview, producer Hirotaka Furukawa confirmed that they hoped to get a deal done for the US, not to mention France and Germany. On the other hand, he also said that the script for the Star Blazers Hollywood movie was done in pretty much the same sentence. Six months after that interview, this past March, Skydance Media, Voyager's partner, said they'd just hired Zach Dean to write a script. And six months after that, we've still got bupkis to show for it, on both fronts.
Am I being impatient, here? Maybe I'm just fiending to see Star Blazers 2202, because the original Comet Empire story was so fantastic. This remake is something of a stress test for the creative team—Izubuchi has stepped away and handed the storytelling reins to Gundam Unicorn scribe Harutoshi Fukui. He's still supported by an all-star squadron of creative staff, though, and notices for the new film series have been good.
Beyond that, the wait for Star Blazers 2199 continues. The Italian release is pretty great (I got #992 of the first box's 1000-copy limited-edition release! Man, remember when Bandai Visual USA made a limited-edition run of just 30,000 copies of Patlabor 2?), and I should also note that fans in Italy can enjoy the series streaming. It's been on vvvvid.it for about a year, and actually debuted on Netflix Italy in January. Last November, Toonami producer Jason DeMarco revealed, on Twitter no less, that he'd made an attempt in 2014 to get 2199 on Adult Swim. “Won't be happening” was his final word on the subject. I figure a US release just might be held up by this movie deal. I'd kinda like to see what director Chistopher McQuarrie eventually comes up with for the Hollywood film. He's spent the last decade working with Tom Cruise, so I figure that what needs to happen is, Tom Cruise has to grow a snowy beard and play Captain Avatar.
You can picture it, right? In the meantime, I'm going to figure a US release of Star Blazers 2199 simply has to come up at some point, because I've spent a bunch of cash on buying a fancy foreign edition of this series. That's just how these things work. As for that dubbed Star Blazers 2199 pilot episode, I'll keep searching for it. it'd be a real shame if it got leaked somehow, or even included on a new release somewhere. They definitely shouldn't do that!
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