Happy New Year, readers! Over this Christmas break, I’ve been watching a lot of my favourite Japanese anime. They’re off to outer space; they’re leaving Mother Earth, to save the human race! Our… In 1974, Japanese TV audiences were treated to the debut of what would become a worldwide sci-fi phenomenon. Uchū Senkan Yamato – Space Battleship Yamato – a creation of Yoshinobu Nishizaki, was an anime TV series which followed the journey of the Space Battleship Yamato on a mercy mission to save the earth from radioactive extinction. It became very popular in its home country, and in 1976, the first series was edited down into a feature-length instalment that was discovered in the West, redubbed and then retitled Space Cruiser. This film was spotted by Westchester Corporation, who then picked up the original TV series and edited out some of the more adult themes – a bit of cheeky nudity, and a drunk doctor who became a spring water addict in the edit – and in 1979, the series became Star Blazers and was a hit in syndication across the United States.
At the time, it was common for any Japanese anime being imported into the US to be edited down heavily, at times entire plots being re-written or removed. This changed somewhat with Star Blazers, which was the first anime to be shown in the US that had a serialised storyline, requiring episodes to be shown in order. Much of the pathos and drama was also retained, making Star Blazers very dramatic and intense in parts, more so than most kids’ shows then and now. There went on to be three series dubbed into English, but there are a number of as-yet undubbed films that were made during and after the Japanese run of Yamato that continue the story of the famous ship and her crew. I first saw the original series, Star Blazers: The Quest for Iscandar, on video some years ago. Dad found them at a pop-up video shop at a local shopping centre, and remembered them from his childhood. Snapping them up without a second thought, he proceeded to sit us all down to watch them. I was enthralled, and so were my younger brothers. The difference now is that I am still enthralled by it, and they like being outside. Their loss! Here’s a nice simple plot summary from Wikipedia: In the first season, Earth is attacked by Gamilon, a distant planet. The radiation from Gamilon’s planet bombs forces everyone on Earth underground. With no way to remove the radiation, all life on Earth will be wiped out in one year. The Earth then receives unexpected help from Queen Starsha of the planet Iscandar, who offers a device called “Cosmo DNA” which will remove the radiation. However, since Iscandar is 148,000 light years away, Starsha also sends plans for the experimental Wave Motion Engine that, when constructed, will aid whoever can travel to Iscandar. On Earth, a crew is recruited, headed by Captain Avatar and named the Star Force, and an old sunken battleship (the Yamato) is transformed into a spaceship (the Argo), outfitted with the Wave Motion Engine, and sent to Iscandar.
This outlandish concept manages to run without dragging over 26 20-minute episodes. There’s only one filler episode that I can think of off-hand, where the ship stops off on the planet Beeland, but even that episode contains some things that make the series important. Star Blazers contains a thoroughly interesting villain, a bunch of three-dimensional protagonists (except the Earth Defence Commander, who says the same thing every time he is on screen; fortunately that’s only about three times), and some more mature concepts, both emotional and philosophical. Notable amongst these are an exploration of whether robots can or should be able to love, and the idea of the “honourable enemy,” which makes it hard to really despise Gamilon Leader Desslok, especially when we discover his motives. The program can at times be gut wrenchingly emotional. Captain Avatar is initially mysterious, his character solitary and withdrawn. As the series progresses, we learn why, and it brings a tear to the eye. Additionally, the lead-lead, Derek Wildstar, is an orphan who lost both his parents and his brother in different Gamilon attacks. A flashback in which we are shown why Wildstar signed up to the Star Force has just the right amount of cornball family stuff before his entire world falls apart. Also in this flashback – and throughout the series – there is very intense post-Hiroshima imagery, with a planet bomb explosion looking just like an atomic explosion. Mount Fuji also erupts as a direct consequence of this attack. These two images together were frightening in the West, but in Japan in the 1970s, a mere thirty years after the end of the Second World War, they would have had an even more familiar ring. The sheer destruction of a part of the world in the blink of an eye would be something that resonated with every man, woman and child in Japan at that time, and probably even now.
However, there is also a lot of fun to be had watching Star Blazers. There’s a lot of humour, even if some of it is a little clunky thanks to the occasionally too literal translation. It’s pretty routine to hear the cast abusing each other in one scene and then berate each other for not following discipline and regulation. If you’ve ever seen the Speed Racer anime from the late 1960s (“You can’t race in this race! It’s a very dangerous race! This race is very dangerous!”), you’ll know how early anime can look. In terms of its animation of people, Star Blazers hasn’t advanced much further from Speed Racer, but its technical aspects are leaps ahead. Spaceships manoeuver quite fluidly, and there is an ambitious shot that the animators love to use of the Argo heading towards and passing in front of the camera. This shot necessitates the use of a huge number of different angles of the ship, and given how detailed the thing is, it would have taken a lot of time to assemble the sequence. It looks dodgy now, but considering they could only hand-draw such a thing, it’s pretty impressive. The English voice casting is also quite good. It’s not nearly as wooden as Speed Racer, and as the series rolls on you notice the cast becoming more comfortable in their roles. I’ve read that, by the time the third series came up for dubbing, Westchester lost contact with the original cast and replaced them all. This is a shame, because you come to associate the characters with their very distinctive voices. Finally, no review on this blog would be complete without a discussion of music, and in that regard, Star Blazers does not disappoint. Hiroshi Miyagawa is an unmitigated genius, as far as I am concerned. I have what a lot of people would describe as bad taste in music, with a strong appreciation for funky and groovy sounds. Miyagawa’s compositions have these in droves, and considering he was writing for mono sound setups, they still sound surprisingly wide ranging. But as well as his talent for writing funky 70s jazz motifs, Miyagawa can also write some very nice dramatic cues as well. Certainly he had an appreciation for strings, and uses deep brass to convey intensity, much the same way as Barry Gray had done in Thunderbirds and its related series years before. In conversation with series creator Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Miyagawa and he decided not to use synthesisers for the soundtrack, instead opting for the orchestral sound to create high drama. John Williams and George Lucas would make the same decision for Star Wars in 1977. What they came up with was “The Universe Spreading To Infinity,” in which an opera singer sings like a synthesiser, for a very otherworldly sound: