Uchū Senkan Yamato

Tagged: Film | TV

["Space Cruiser Yamato" vt "Space Battleship Yamato"] Animated tv series (1974-1975 Japan; trans as Star Blazers US). Yomiuri TV, Artland, Westcape, Studio Take Off. Directed by Noboru Ishiguro, starring Kei Tomiyama, Yōko Asagami. Screenplay Keisuke Fujikawa, Eiichi Yamamoto, Maru Tamura at al. 26 episodes of 25 minutes (season one). Colour.

In the year 2199, a savage attack by the Alien Gamilas race swiftly reduces the Earth's surface to a Post-Holocaust wasteland of radioactive rubble. In a last-ditch scheme, the dying remnants of mankind Underground turn the World War Two hulk of the battleship Yamato into a space-worthy Starship. A crew of volunteers then sets out on what is largely believed to be a suicidal mission, in the hope of reaching a friendly alien system in the Large Magellanic Cloud, where a radiation-destroying device is believed to be located.

Space Cruiser Yamato was the brainchild of Yoshinobu Nishizaki (1934-2010), who achieved legendary stature in the Anime business in the 1970s recession with this genre spectacular. Nishizaki imbued his series with powerful allegorical (and in the case of the titular vessel, not-so-allegorical) resonances of Japan's wartime experience and recovery, even to the extent of some elements left deliberately unfinished, as if the tale itself were a last-minute artefact assembled under crushing austerity like an ink-splotched late-edition newspaper. Yamato's macho posturing and earnest drive won it a strong audience share, at a time when Hayao Miyazaki's gentle pastoral Heidi (1975) was running on a rival channel, the combined rating for the two shows was 30%, twice the size of the supposed contemporary "children's" audience.

While fans of TV shows may come and go, technology, culture and generational location extended Yamato's artistic heritage far beyond its original six-month run. As suggested by the ratings for it and Heidi, its TV broadcast coincided with the coming-of-age of the generation that had grown up watching Astro Boy, leading to its co-option by nascent media Fandom as a cherished property, and the first Seiun Award to be given to a cartoon show. The same period saw the rise of Japan's first magazines and stores dedicated to anime and manga merchandise, further keeping it in the forefront of fan discourse. Although anime historians tend to play down the role of foreign influences, the global success of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) also made sf a new growth area in Japanese media, leading to Yamato sequel serials and movie spin-offs throughout the 1980s. Moreover, the rise of the video cassette, as a means of time-shifting, archiving, proselytizing among fans and, ultimately, as a new form of media consumption, further imparted late 1970s and early 1980s Japanese cartoons with unprecedented longevity (see also > Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä).

Yoshinobu Nishizaki put the newly-minted hard-core fans to work, issuing selected shills with a guerilla marketing pack and instructions to post flyers, request the theme song on local radio stations, and otherwise push the movie spin-offs. This shrewd, stealth promotion paid off immensely, with media reporting queues around the block to see what would otherwise have been an obscure children's film, Uchū Senkan Yamato (1977), assembled largely from old television footage. The second film Saraba Uchū Senkan Yamato: Ai no Senshitachi ["Farewell Space Cruiser Yamato: Warriors of Love"] (1978; vt Arrivederci Yamato), was billed as a sequel but comprised newly-made footage, making it more appealing to a general audience, and ultimately the highest-earning entry in the franchise. It remains one of the historical top twenty highest-earning anime at the Japanese box office, although one might observe that it was given three months to accrue its sales, not the customary fortnight assigned to most other films. Several other films followed, as well as video spin-offs and other memorabilia.

The financial success of Yamato, with concomitant Toy, novel, merchandise and Manga spin-offs, led to considerable conflict among its creators over who actually owned it. As producer, Yoshinobu Nishizaki was the prime mover of the production, and a devious manipulator of its media profile; however, as lead artist, Leiji Matsumoto was responsible for much of the serial's iconic look, storyline, artefacts, characters and tone. Their legal feud wore on for several decades, and might be said to have been merely on hiatus at the time of Nishizaki's death (in which, with terminal irony, he fell off his personal yacht, the cruiser Yamato), shortly before the release of the big-budget live-action movie remake, Space Battleship Yamato (2010, title thus in English). While Matsumoto had many other strings to his bow, Nishizaki arguably had little but Yamato to fall back on, leading to many remakes, resprays and reboots in the intervening years. Although such reiterations offered diminishing artistic and narrative returns, they continued to generate money for the franchise, leading Japanese pundits to cite Yamato as one of the first examples of "silver anime" – a cartoon franchise that maintains its earning power as the original fanbase ages.

Broadcast in North America as Star Blazers (1979), the Anglophone release changed many names, with the Gamilas now Gamilons and the ship now renamed the Argo. There was also some bowdlerization of certain themes, particularly the aging Captain's penchant for booze. However, the central quest narrative and complex story-arcs remained compelling for America's own early anime fans, leading to a spin-off comic by Tim Eldred, and numerous homages to the show in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), including a USS Yamato. Such asides can normally be attributed to the technical consultant Rick Sternbach, an unabashed anime fan. Four decades after its first appearance, Yamato remains a powerful influence on Japanese sf, referenced everywhere from Martian Successor Nadesico to Yukinobu Hoshino's Yamataika ["Fires of Yamatai"] (graph 1987). [JonC]

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