Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Uchu Senkan Yamato (2010) Movie Review

It is the year 2199,

After five years of seemingly endless attacks by an alien force known only as the Gamilas, nearly the entire surface of the Earth is rendered uninhabitable, forcing the remaining human population to retreat beneath the surface. After a major offensive by the Earth Defense Force, the Gamilas response is swift and fierce. And in the ensuing retreat, Captain Juzo Okita and his crew are saved from destruction due to the noble sacrifice of Captain Mamoru Kodai and his ship, the Yukikaze. Meanwhile, the younger Kodai, Susumu lives a life away from the military he once knew quite well, now salvaging decontaminated matter for sale back to the military. However, upon stepping out onto the desert-like surface, he is nearly hit by a falling object, which strangely contains blueprints and details regarding potential means for not only helping what remains of humanity survive, but to restore Earth to its former living glory. The catch is that this enigmatic device only exists on one planet, the planet which claims to be the source of the metorite, Iscandar, a world far beyond the Milky Way galaxy, and a journey fraught with almost insurmountable danger. And yet with this miniscule nugget of hope in hand, the EDF enlists Okita to seek volunteers for a mission that could very well decide the fate of not only the crew of the alien-technology restored space battleship, Yamato, but of the earth entire. But the Yamato is but one, and time is running out.

And so it is, one year after the initial release of one of the most anticipated live-action events of my moviegoing life, I have finally been able to catch Takashi Yamazaki's grand rendition of one of Japanese pop culture's most enduring creations.

Originally airing from 1974-1975, the brainchild of barnburning visionary, Yoshinobu Nishizaki, along with soon-to-be  anime legend, Leiji Matsumoto, Space Battleship Yamato was and remains one of the most, if not the single most important anime creation of all time. Blending a fresh mix of high romance, space opera, and historical rumination, Yamato helped usher in a wholly new form of fandom for an animated series initially geared toward younger, preteen audiences. Having initially been deemed a failure, demand by an unexpected demographic (older, college-aged fans) eventually roared new life into the series, leading to not only a feature film, and a new series, but eventually international success, as the it eventually found itself dubbed and released under the name Star Blazers. Which is how I initially experienced it as a wide-eyed grub, glued to the screen as an animated show took me places I never imagined possible by a cartoon.

And even as the series came edited, and with names & certain circumstances changed, it was clear to me that something special had been discovered, and that no matter what, one day the feeling I experienced simply by way of appointment viewing would return on my path one day. Yamato came at a time when science fiction & fantasy had suddenly shifted due to Star Wars a few years prior. However, the series' unique brand of unexpected grandeur and seriousness had affected me in ways that the Treks and Wars could not. It galvanized me into watching it, ever more curious as to how the story would unfold. Even as I was too young to fathom the series' deeper musings about Japan's feelings post WWII, it was the compelling characters and situations that kept me coming back for more. I won't lie, Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildstar) was something of an early fictional heroic foil for me as a child, and Shima (Mark Venture) was always at closer in spirit to me. And it didn't hurt that the show's most brutal hook, a continuous countdown of days remaining for our heroes to reach Iscandar and save Earth always hanged over the end of each episode like a shroud of doom. Far from subtle, it seriously played havoc with my young brain for weeks on end. And it wasn't until much later that I finally saw the series in its entirety, along with the films, each of which broke my heart time and again with bizarre ease. It is a series that embraces full emotion, and plays it to the hilt with a grand sweep most anime simply hasn't been capable of replicating.

So when speaking of this large-scale production, it may help to preface this by openly stating that up until this point, I have never been the biggest fan of Yamazaki. Upon discovering the news that he was to helm the live action duties for such a beloved series, concern was the first feeling that swept over me. Having seen several of his films, including Juvenile (2000), and Returner (2002), his brand of derivative mish-mashing can be reminiscent of a more sedate Roland Emmerich complimented by heavy digital effects work, and one-dimensional characterizations. Even his award-winning Always films tap into a more populist mindset that at times runs counter to the kind of nuanced storytelling required to handle such a grand tale. So it may surprise some to discover that at least 60% of the time, Yamazaki finds it in himself to not only do a decent job of bringing Yamato to life, but to help establish something I have always wanted to see done with live action anime; create a work that is different enough, and yet wholly reverent to the source material.

Naturally, having to tell such a sprawling tale within a 2 and a half hour running time makes for some compression issues that at times can be more than a little jarring. Oddly, what came to mind regarding story efficiency was Speed Racer(2008), where nearly the opposite took place. That film suffered from an almost unnecessary first hour, whereas with Yamato, the film virtually catapults into the central mission well within the first thirty minutes, which leaves little to no time for the viewer to get a good idea of not only who these characters are, but grant a foundation for how each individual arc will unfold throughout the film. This is easily the most auspicious issue I may have with the film as a whole, as relationships merely move, and aren't informed well enough, and far too much happens far too early to have any impact to anyone who isn't already familiar with the story. It's a clumsy start that the finale in many ways never recovers from, and yet there are so many other elements that somehow buoy the remainder. And a lot of this may be due to a sense intimacy granted in later moments where a pretty good cast rises well beyond some of Yamazaki's patently obvious direction. It is also very clear that nearly all involved know full well the world they are bringing to life, and it shows despite the at-times all-too-ripped from recent science fiction vibe emanating from much of the action. If one is able to overlook the Battlestar Galactica and JJ Abrams Star Trek, one may be able to be truly wrapped up in matters.

Some of the "new" that works:

Among the more obvious changes, are a few of the casting decisions, along with some interesting role alterations. Updating the often dismissible Yuki Mori(Meisa Kuroki) into a Black Tiger ace pilot was a particularly welcome change, although it would have been more exciting to have explored her character a little more. What winds up onscreen offers only a vague idea of who she is, and what she could bring to the mythos, especially in regards to her relationship to Kodai, which is a major lynchpin of the series. Something there was definitely needed in order to offer lasting oomph for the finale. Also, I actually rather enjoy the idea of Sado-sensei being played by Reiko Takashima. If there's any problems with her and Maiko Scorick as Communications Officer, Aihara, it's that they merely are there out of necessity. And Shima as dad to Jiro (previously his little brother) adds additional tragic punch to his backstory, which helps his role move a little faster. And then there's Analyzer...Well. The less said about Analyzer, the better.

In the "bold" department, is the representation of the Gamilas, which I will not go into too much detail here. But it is an interesting, more "alien" choice to go with, if not a wholly satisfying one since one of the original mythology's more compelling elements was that of an almost familar enemy which further blurred certain moral & emotional lines in regards to warfare. Dessler is here, just not in any way some might expect. It is another decision that in many ways isolates the Yamato crew, and keeps the threat from being anything more than an almost faceless nuisance until the final reel.

And as mentioned, despite Yamazaki's often awkward staging & blocking, there are a few notable performances that helped ground this rendition with unexpected aplomb. Most importantly, Tsutomu Yamazaki's Okita, who's frail and yet duty-hardened frame carries a burden too great to share with the crew. It's a delicate, unexpectedly effective weight he brings to the film when it often threatens to reduce itself to borderline camp when it comes time for the FX action to take center stage. And in an almost serendipitous case of casting, Takuya Kimura's Kodai is an almost dead-perfect portrayal of a young man rapidly seeing his destiny crystallize before him after years of remaining the brash, short-tempered kid with a chip on his shoulder. Seeing as how the Kodai character is pretty much the classic "hero's journey" archetype, Kimura adds just enough gravitas to make the character work. Also welcome to the proceedings is Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (Ip Man) who's take on Space Commandos' leader, Saito is fun and earnest enough. As is Toshiro Yanagiba's terrific take on Sanada, the ultra-serious Chief Science officer.

Back to the bold without spoiling the film. As a single outing event piece, Yamato goes out of its way to pay tribute to numerous famous images and moments, at times to the point that it seems like Yamazaki, and writer Shimako Sato were out to cover their bases in case the film was a financial failure. And as a result, I'm afraid that there is little left to be said once the credits roll. And while much of the finale is milked for emotional impact, again, it feels as if producers were ready to cut their losses, much to the detriment of the film. Which isn't to say that the final product comes without it's own effective moments, but it does leave a void in the "what could have been" department. There is such a bar to be reached when considering the legacy and emotional potential of a grand scale (preferrably three-hour) Uchu Senkan Yamato movie, that perhaps, at least as of now, it's a dream idea near improbable to reach. But fans can still dream, can't they? A fun and welcome tribute is perhaps the best one can ask for.

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