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Review of Space Battleship Yamato

Why is Yamato so influential on a generation of anime otaku and later anime, despite a weak story and compromised production? It offers a fantasy WWII in which Imperial Japan is the hero, and all its sins projected onto an imaginary enemy.

Space Battleship Yamato (1974)

Finishing Macross and going back still further to its influences, we arrive at one of the wellsprings of SF anime: Space Battleship Yamato. Still ongoing in perennial remakes, Yamato is one of the most famous and respected anime (at least in Japan—its appeal overseas seems much more limited), and has been famously cited by Hideaki Anno in 1991 as his favorite anime of all time.1

Yamato is an almost obligatory mention in academic writing about anime, but the perfunctory canned description of it as being ‘about a space battleship which tries to save the Earth by fighting its way to a distant planet to retrieve a MacGuffin and return in time, alluding to WWII’ gives the impression that none of the writers involved has seen Yamato, much less had any insight into what made it so compelling.

Why did it succeed with this goofy premise, when written by a neophyte author, embodied in a budget-truncated series, and shorn of its most compelling character? How could this inspire Hideaki Anno to be an animator?

Yamato has several virtues: it is surprisingly well animated for the time, the plot moves along rapidly, and the episodes are well-formed A/B parallel plots with occasional cleverness and entertaining space opera shenanigans like using the Yamato’s anchor to swing around a moon. A particularly striking otaku-bait aspect is the heavy emphasis put on chronology, obsessively tracking how many days have passed, where the Yamato is now located, how many days are left, and how far behind schedule they are; great for trivia contests. (The restored edition I watched delights in providing commentary in the credits pointing out all of the errors and changes in it, many relating to the chronology.)

Watching Yamato is a series of shocks as one realizes just how much it influenced: the odd nationalist undertones in many SF anime (particularly Gainax ones), or how Yamato keeps popping up in strange places, of course—but Yamato is also the trope-definer for the taciturn bearded captain (Macross, Evangelion, Nadesico), the harried vessel with the super-powerful weapon (Space Runaway Ideon), the alien delta-wing bombers painted white circling a crippled vessel (End of Evangelion), the hotshot pilot on a salvaged vessel fighting aliens (Macross again), the not-nuclear-bombs and mushroom clouds (DAICON, Evangelion), the use of advanced alien technology to create a “red earth” inimitable to human life but suitable for alien life where the few surviving crew activate the deus ex machina (End of Evangelion), over-ambition leading to budget cuts and problems with satisfying endings but its huge success & cult following enabling film remakes (Evangelion again). Outside anime, Aum Shinrikyo infamously invoked Yamato & the Cosmo Cleaner as a narrative of how it’d cleanse post-WWII Japan.

There are sins, of course: the chronology of 1 year was originally designed to play out over 52 rather than 26 episodes, so airing once per week, the viewer at home would have been watching the series in realtime (!) as if it were dispatches from the frontlines in a real war, but the constant budget cuts ruins this clever scheme, and forces much of the series to be pared away, like what would have been the first appearance of Captain Harlock. (This leads to some truly hilarious shortcuts: for example, the leader of the enemy is alive up until about 3 minutes before the end of the final episode; his last ship pops out from hiding and blasts the Yamato at point-blank range with its lasers, dooming everyone… Until the Yamato activates its mirror-armor, reflects the lasers back, killing the villain and saving the day! Wait, what mirror-armor‽ Everyone on the Yamato’s bridge looks at the engineer. Oh, he explains, I built it after episode 8, and just never mentioned it until now. Or the aliens simply change skin color from normal human skin color to green after a few episodes with no explanation. Similarly, Yamato has many female crewmembers… all but one of which are ‘put into cryosleep’ after a few episodes and never heard from again.) The premise is never less than fanciful, and the apparently hard SF approach that the chronology & detailed astronomy promises is selectively applied, at best. The character designs are largely uninspired (the 2 comic-relief characters are Jar Jar Binks tier), and the music forgettable. Overall, I would put it into the “influential but not worth watching” category.

Which leaves the question unanswered: why is it influential?

What it provides is a WWII that Japanese children can feel proud of. It simply reverses reality to provide a fantasy alternate history transferring the sins of the Japanese Empire to the enemy.

The Empire conquered for little more reason than lebensraum, attacking countries uninterested or unable to attack it back, casually slaughtering civilian populations in massacres like Shanghai or Okinawa, building grandiose monuments to militarism like the largest battleship in the world, powered by a war economy benefiting from slave-labor & looting of conquered natives, crippling the American fleet in an apparently brilliant surprise attack, but achieving in the end only futility (especially the Yamato, which, obsolete in the new aircraft carrier & submarine paradigm, achieved little of military importance, and killed 3000 crew) in a war fought to the death long past the slightest possibility of a victory, wiping out an entire generation of young men and bringing historic levels of destruction to the homeland & civilians they ostensibly fought for (including the only use of atomic bombs). In Yamato, all this is reversed: it is Earth which is attacked with not-atomic-bombs by rapacious invaders seeking to colonize it, and the Yamato is vital to the salvation of their country (humanity), led by its heroic officers, who are humbled by the power of the Yamato’s main guns and agonize over any mistreatment of indigenous aliens (and sometimes free them from forced-labor under the invaders), fighting only when regrettably forced by a relentless enemy, winning despite the initial destruction of Earth’s fleet, creating a tragically desolate peace by the total defeat of an enemy which prefers glorious kamikaze attacks to surrender, and bringing back the Cosmo Cleaner to heal the Earth of radiation.

The reversal is quite literal. The Yamato, of course, is specified in-universe as being the Yamato (as absurd as that sounds), and there are connections to other Japanese WWII media: Toshio Masuda of Tora! Tora! Tora! would direct the Yamato films after he was unable to direct the series, and Okamoto’s1971 Battle of Okinawa appears to directly inspire several scenes (I was particularly shocked by the scene toward the end where the armored aliens launch a raid inside the Yamato, casually executing all personnel in their path, because that would be borrowed for the same purpose by Anno in End of Evangelion—the analogy actually goes even further, as the top female officer & love interest dies during the assault, galvanizing the protagonist into action). The ‘aliens’ turn out to effectively be human, and to bear distinctly Caucasian appearances and names such as “Dessler” or “Domel” (compared to the classic Yamato-race mokusei of the protagonists, with names like “Okita” or “Kodai”); and the battles can be matched up one by one to WWII battles (Maginot Line, Battle of Britain, the Balkans, Rommel in Egypt, Battle of the Bulge).

The ‘Pacific War’ is a difficult thing for a child to be proud of; the adults disliked discussing it, and the details did not reward discussion. A visit to that topic (or Nazi esthetics) is like a visit to Yasukuni: there is an elephant in the room with you, and inadequate ventilation for the both. 29 years later, there was little closure, particularly for the creators (Leiji Matsumoto was 7 years old in 1945, and 36 in 1974). But a young boy watching Yamato can be proud of how a Japanese battleship and its heroic officers saved humanity.

It’s not ‘wrong’ about WWII, because it’s a fictional anime; it doesn’t require revisionism so much as sidestepping the issue entirely. While never saying so, such an imagined future which is a re-imagined past further justifies an imagined future of a revitalized & re-militarized Japan; one can see how this leads Anno to works like Gunbuster or Evangelion, but it remains open to other imaginations: Macross is particularly interesting in subverting that read, by (like Otaku no Video) being a celebration of fandom, consumerism, J-pop idols, and the 1980s bubble, firmly grounded in anti-imperialism—the post-war 7/11 culture (or, ‘Culture’) is in fact superior to the grim reality that militarism is not ennobling (‘that old lie’) but grinds away all that is good about life, and the nation’s ‘defeat’ in the Pacific War is the people’s victory.

As long as this shadow lies—“legends never die”.

  1. Another instance of respect: Final Yamato was the longest anime movie ever, 1983–2019, when it was surpassed by another WWII-related film, In This Corner of the World, which also included the Yamato as a character; this record was not an accident, eg. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is exactly 1 minute shorter.↩︎