In 1974, before Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Gundam, and Macross, there was Space Battleship Yamato (or Starblazers as it was known in the US). Now nearly four decades later the series has returned with the rebootSpace Battleship Yamato 2199 — a reboot that easily makes for the best space opera in more than half a decade.
Good — A Classic Formula
The set up for Yamato 2199 is really quite straight forward. Earth has been rendered nearly lifeless due to the constant attacks of hostile aliens known as the Garmillans. Now the human race is forced to live in underground cities; but sadly, it is only a matter of time before humanity dies out. Luckily, a friendly alien race from the planet Iscandar is willing to give the humans a device that is able to return earth to how it was before the attacks. The trick is, however, the humans need to come and pick it up. So with a ship full of previously supplied Iscandarian technology and the best humanity has to offer, the crew of the Yamato begins its trek to the far off alien world, fighting the Garmillans every step of the way.
But just because the plot set up is simple isn't to say the series is without its twists and turns. Seemingly obvious moments of foreshadowing are revealed to be red herrings, and information we've assumed to be true from the start is shown to be less than true. But what the setting does best is to create a perfect framework for the characters to thrive in.
Good — Unique and Developed Characters
Yamato 2199 is a great example of a well-handled and developed ensemble cast. While the characters may all be on a mission to save the human race, everyone has a different motivation for doing so. Moreover, the crew is split into several different camps as to how humanity should be saved. Some think reaching Iscandar is the best chance for survival. Others think relocating the human population to some other habitable world is better. While still a third camp thinks killing every Garmillan in the galaxy is probably the only option. This makes for exciting tension among the crew even as they battle against constant Garmillan attacks.
Beyond the different ideological groups, the characters all have interesting, and often complex backstories, that affect each and every decision they make. Thus, Yamato 2199 is an amazing character-driven anime, where each episode takes these well-developed characters and puts them in an alien situation — while you sit back and enjoy watching how they interact with it.
Good — Space is an Ocean
There is a prevalent idea in popular culture that space is like an ocean. Yamato 2199 takes this idea to its extremes. There are space aircraft carriers and submarines (that submerge into another dimension) and massive space storms and becalmed areas.
The visuals of the series further serve to facilitate this view, with ships skimming the tops of nebulas and leaving a path that looks suspiciously like ripples while the fighters use small chunks of nebulas for cloud cover. Honestly, it would all seem rather ridiculous if it weren't so imaginative and visually stunning.
Mixed — Alien Life is Surprisingly Human
While the Garmillans do make for an imposing, threatening villain, they are hardly alien beyond their blue-tinted skin colour. Their culture is all too human — they are little more than space-Romans. As a people, they spread through the galaxy, conquer, and assimilate the conquered species into their empire. The Iscandarians are also hardly alien. They are just technologically advanced space pacifists.
So while, in the end, the aliens are understandable and, in some cases, sympathetic, their lack of major cultural differences from our own makes them less alien than many of the rubber-suited aliens on the original Star Trek.
Bad — Selective Amnesia For the Sake Of Melodrama
Each episode of Yamato 2199 poses a new conflict for the crew to overcome. The problem is that, on some occasions, these problems could easily be overcome by technology we have seen in past episodes.
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There is an entire episode about a space sub occasionally shooting torpedoes at the Yamato. However, the crew seems to forgotten that the Yamato has a shield that, in the very next episode, takes hundreds of torpedo hits and leaves the ship without any damage. Moreover, the torpedoes are quite slow, allowing plenty of time to raise the shield. So why isn't is used? Because if they did, there would be no drama.
In another episode, there is a mutiny on the Yamato where the faction wanting to relocate humanity to a new world takes over the ship. The problem — that is, of course, never mentioned — is that the Garmillans have been tracking the Yamato and no doubt know this new planet's location. Thus relocation would solve nothing. So why is this massive and obvious flaw in their plan never mentioned by the best and brightest humanity has to offer? Again, because it would dispel the drama of the situation.
This is simply lazy writing for the sake of creating a contrived, tension-filled situation. At best it makes the crew look forgetful and at worst, horribly incompetent. Thankfully, such moments are the exception, not the rule.
Rare moments of contrived plot amnesia aside, Yamato 2199 is an excellent space opera anime as well as a well-realised modern remake of a classic series. It has great characters, an episodic format that isn't afraid to spend an episode here or there exploring high-minded concepts or character backgrounds, and excellent visuals from start to finish. If you enjoyed Star Trek, Battlestar Galatica, Macross, or any number of other space operas, you should definitely give Space Battleship Yamato 2199 a watch.
Space Battleship Yamato 2199 aired on MBS in Japan. Episodes 1-22 are currently available on Japanese Blu-Ray with English subtitles (and the final Blu-ray is set to release on October 25, 2013). It is not currently scheduled for a Western release (though it is being shopped around).