NOTE: This article is also available at Ideas Without End here
The 1974-5 animated series Space Battleship Yamato was one of the first attempts at translating the popularity of sci-fi into animated format in Japan. It took a patriotic line, with the naval white elephant of the Second World War the IJN Yamato repurposed far in the future as a starfaring vessel carrying with it the hope not only of Japan but of humanity. The series has been remade and reworked in 2012, and the opening two episodes are particularly interesting in how they downplay this patriotism and instead favour unity and trust.
Both series have the same general plot; an alien empire beseiges Earth and has driven mankind to the point of extinction as the remnants of humanity hide in fallout shelters from consistent bombardment, while a second alien race offers hope in the form of a device to restore the planet to life, and the blueprints for an engine with which a ship may make the journey to their homeworld. Yamato 2199 begins by clearly setting the scene for what is to come; the aged Admiral Okita commands what appears to be a formidable force against a similarly-sized enemy fleet, and his ships are wiped out in minutes. This massacre is depicted in stark detail, with a continued focus on the destruction of the human ships and no attempt made to humanise the enemy. They are simply an enemy force, faceless and uniform, which impassively destroys all that come before it. The overall tone and visual language here is highly evocative of films about the Second World War; right down to Okita’s defiance in the face of the enemy by calling them idiots when asked to surrender (some attempts to translate this scene make the historical homage more explicit by translating the line as “Nuts!”)
The battle concludes with the sole surviving member of the main fleet sacrificing itself to allow Okita’s flagship to escape, the crew singing a patriotic hymn as they die. From this scene, the tone has clearly been set as more inspired by historical war films than optimistic science-fiction. The sacrifice becomes a key point of conflict for the characters for the remainder of the episodes; for once in something of this genre the human cost of space battles and the effect this has on the men who give the orders is being brought to the forefront. For a series based around restoring and redefining the memory of a naval defeat and a military ethos that proved unsuccessful, this looking backwards is if anything showing how backward humanity is and yet also that that primitive nature may save them; it glorifies self-sacrifice and fighting on in the face of death in order that the species may survive.
That the whole engagement and all the deaths (graphically shown) that it entailed are subsequently proven to be nothing but a diversion presses home even further this melodramatic presentation of war. Yamato 2199 is not a subtle series, but this heavy-handed impressing upon the viewer of the sheer futility of the situation, and of being a defeated people, gives it a kind of power beyond the superficial. When mankind is on the ropes, as it is shown to be, ideas of honesty are called into question. The expository dialogue, in which the slow death of the Earth at the hands of alien superweapons and plagues is spelt out in plain terms, is shown to be a primary school lesson; impressing upon children (and the viewer) not only the details of the setting but also painting the enemies as undeniable hate figures. The truth here is used as propaganda since it is useful to do so. Yet the school scene ends with a child asking why the aliens are doing this; the teacher can only reply that the enemy are only doing as mankind has done in the past. While the still-faceless enemies are being dehumanised as cowards who, following mankind’s heroic last stand, hide and sling missiles at the planet to kill it slowly, they are also being humanised in the most negative way; embodying the depths to which a “civilised” race will sink to win a war.
By contrast, a scene in which Okita lies to assembled heads of state about the status of the Yamato’s crew, claiming that they are alive and well when an enemy attack has killed most of its officers before they could board the ship, is shown to be a necessary lie; it is impossible to trick children into believing mankind can endure, and indeed it is useful not to since it raises a generation who hate the invaders. It is similarly useful to lie about the losses sustained in battle to those whose help you rely on, and Okita’s faith is repaid when the world’s surviving nations provide the power his ship needs to launch before the entire complex is destroyed.
One of the most divisive aspects of both Yamato 2199 and its predecessor is the juxtaposition of this melodrama and bleak setting with comic relief characters such as the alcoholic doctor. The tonal shift between often slapstick comedy and a setting which constantly reminds the viewer of how high the stakes are (the episodes end with a countdown of how many days remain until the extinction of mankind) can seem jarring, but in turn this is a device derived from war films; by establishing individuals as irresponsible, flawed but likeable, the viewer is reminded of how they are embodying the irrepressible nature of mankind and is able to retain some hope of victory. A human element, even if it is exaggerated and a caricature, is a vital counterpoint to the unremitting despair that the setting creates. It can as easily be argued that the almost excessive displays of destruction and reminders of how awful conditions are for mankind are as counterproductive to creating a credible drama, but the combination of the two aspects is needed to drive the plot; there is both a grand-scale conflict for the fate of Earth, but also there is still time for humans to be human, and squabble and bicker.
Indeed, the figure of the doctor, obsessed only with his nurse companion, his pet cat and his drinks cabinet, is both comedic and slightly tragic; the viewer is consistently made to feel they are laughing at him and yet all he is doing is enduring the destruction of Earth. By setting such exaggerated levity in such a bleak setting, even the comedy is tempered with a kind of bleakness – it feels as forced and over the top as the darkness that is displayed through the enemy’s actions.
To conclude, despite its apparently simple storyline about alien invasions and mysterious messages from the depths of space, and its often incongruous comic relief characters, Yamato 2199 is as much a homage to ways of depicting past wars as a science-fiction series. The visual language, the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy and even the dialogue and methods of exposition via narrative progression all draw heavily on military history and the Japanese military ideal that led, in the past, to the real Yamato’s destruction. The series shows both the failure and human cost of conventional warfare for the losing side, but also the tenacity and selflessness that war can bring out in people. It is definitely a science-fiction narrative from a culture that has known defeat – one where the optimism is directed towards a fresh start and eventual peace rather than, say, Star Trek‘s utopian society and bold exploration of new frontiers (to export a culture and mindset).