Space Battleship Yamato is a TV series from 1974 by Leiji Matsumoto (well, mostly by Leiji Matsumoto, although it’s complicated) about a spaceship travelling across the universe captained by a man with a very impressive beard. It’s one of the most influential anime ever made, considered the point from which anime started to turn towards more serious and complex stories. I shall now ask you to completely forget all of that because instead we’re going to talk about Yamato 2199.
Yamato 2199 had a bit of a strange airing run. Each batch of episodes were first released in theatres as single movies, starting in April 2012, and later released in batches of 4 on home video. It wasn’t until April 2013 that its air run on TV even started. We’re 22 episodes in now, with the final 4 episodes to be released in October. Barely anyone in English speaking fandom is watching it, probably due to its weird release schedule and lack of availability. Which is a shame because it’s a complete remake that requires no knowledge of the original. It’s also a shame because it’s a damn fine anime.
So Shinmaru and myself decided to write this post to try get more folks to watch it.
Shinmaru: What really gets to me most about Yamato 2199 is how important everything feels. Not important in the sense of grandness of scope (though there is plenty of that in the series), but important in the sense that everything matters, no matter how small the role a person has in the show. Everyone has a story to tell, thoughts running through their mind, and a heart beating strongly in their chest. The damn doctor barely does anything but get drunk as hell and make sure the captain doesn’t keel over before the Yamato accomplishes its mission, and he’s one of the best characters in the show. Yamato 2199 gives folks like the doc time to breathe and kick it with the captain to philosophize over a few drinks even though every episode counts down the time until the Earth is totally screwed. It’s a classy show like that, you see.
It’s always a challenge to juggle a cast like this so expertly, but Yamato 2199 makes it look easy. Everyone gets the proper time they need to make the intended impression. Every interaction has the potential to be incredibly interesting, so when a character shows up who hasn’t been around for an episode or two, it’s like seeing a good friend who swings by every so often to tell a fun story. That warmth and familiarity is what really stands out to me when I think about the Yamato 2199 cast. Amazingly, the series has established that camaraderie on both sides of the conflict — battles are more agonizing than ever now, because I don’t want to see anyone die. They’re all so wonderful! Except for that fuckhat security officer, that is.
Scamp: The appeal is very similar to that of Star Trek or Mass Effect in the way the character interactions play out. During the down moments you get to learn more about the characters as they sit around and chat. The discussion can be everything from big philosophical discussions about where they are going and racism against aliens to little things like relationships and the weather. These play into the usual climactic battle scene in each episode and arc, so you actually care about what’s going on both on a personal character level and broader plot-level. It’s really well paced, hitting your with the big dramatic moments at exactly the right moments so you understand just what it means to everyone involved when it happens.
As Shinmaru said, they even manage to do this with the aliens. They’re a racist, fascist militaristic regime, but they somehow still feel human…err, I mean Garmillian. They have dreams and beliefs and friends and fears. Even the big boss, who originally appeared comically evil, has wormed his way into my heart through his loyalty and trust in certain commanders. You can start to see why these people admire and look up to him so much. There’s a touch of the Reinhard from Galactic Heroes about him, and that’s not just because of the blonde hair and fabulous cape. But seriously, fuck that security chief.
Shinmaru: That Mass Effect comparison definitely works, particularly if you’re talking the first game, which feels a bit more old-school science-fiction than the other two in the series to me. It hearkens back to when science-fiction was often about pure exploration — worlds, people, concepts. It’s a journey to find and pick at the hard truths of the world. The Yamato has no choice, but to barrel toward its goal, but along the way, the crew cannot help but think about that journey. Are they doing the right thing? Are they doing this for the right reasons? The answers to those questions and others — if, indeed, answers even exist — are rarely easy or pleasant.
You’ve probably gathered by now that this is not an entirely black-and-white affair. There are of course good and bad people on both sides of the battle, and good and bad deeds alike have been wrought by the Garmillians and humans. The hands of neither side are truly clean, but there is great dignity to the way people examine themselves and their beliefs. In the vastness of the universe, there is no absolute right or wrong; the Yamato crew comes to discover this time and again, and yet they press forward, unremittingly, if only because they must.
Scamp: The giant pitched space battles can look a little odd. I attribute this to the CG animated ships looking eerily similar to the ships in Futurama, so at the start I couldn’t take any of the battles seriously. Thankfully as the story progressed, I grew to care about the characters and by extension the battles. Now they could make the battles just be cardboard cutouts of identical ships going pew pew pew with no attention paid to who hits whom with their laser beams (otherwise known as the Legend of the Galactic Heroes approach to space battles) and it would still be riveting viewing.
If there was one criticism I could level at the show, it’s that it’s a little strong on the male gaze. The original Yamato had only one female on the entire ship while Yamato 2199 has several, so congratulations for progressing beyond the standards set in the early 1970’s I guess. The women do all have the exact same body type, packed into a skintight catsuit while the men all wear more sensible uniform. The camera really does like to focus on their shapely backsides. I don’t mind this as much as I’m letting on. It is a really great arse. I just wish the arses varied from girl to girl.
Shinmaru: Yeah, I didn’t think the battles looked amazing at first, either, though they definitely looked a cut above most everything else that employs CG. But I’ve grown fond of the battles, even when they’ve done ridiculous stuff like have a ship that acts like a submarine in space through means I won’t mention here. Or maybe that’s why I enjoy the battles so much. But, yes, the battles grow in intensity and spectacle throughout the series, and once Yamato 2199 puts the screws into folks on both sides, then they’re that much more harrowing.
I’m incredibly excited to see where the series wraps up with four episodes to go. There have been some great reveals regarding the nature of the Garmilas culture and how that relates to their intentions in the war that leaves me with little idea how everything will turn out in the face of the Yamato’s mission. There are so many possibilities; the only thing I am sure of is that the ending will be quite bittersweet, and it’s a feeling that Yamato 2199 has long since earned. The depth of character, story and craft give it a punch that is rare in many mediums, much less anime. I’m clamoring to see the conclusion, but I know I’ll be sad for many reasons when it’s finished.