Episode 20 Commentary

Argo–A Daring Surprise Attack!

By Arthur Painter (with notes from Tim Eldred)

Watch this episode now at these sources: Star Blazers on Hulu | Star Blazers on YouTube | Original version subtitled

In Megalopolis (aka Tokyo) the United Earth President meets with other world leaders. The Earth President is a recurring character that makes appearances well into Series 3, but his name has never been revealed. After the President sits down, the other council members take their seats. Every time I watch this scene, I can’t help but look at the person on the left, second seat from the President. As he sits down, he disappears! More strangeness follows: in a subsequent shot from behind the President’s chair, the cel of the chair is missing, leaving the top of the President’s head floating in the air.

EDF Commander Singleton reports that Captain Gideon will begin his attack on the Comet Empire’s advance fleet at 0600 the next morning. Yamato 2 ends the scene with a look at a tactical map of the Saturn area, which becomes this episode’s title card.

At Titan’s EDF HQ, Gideon holds a meeting with his fleet officers. He stresses that surprise–SURPRISE!–will play a big part in his plans. (Sorry Monty Python fans, no mention of fear, ruthless efficiency, or a fanatical devotion to the Pope. Just surprise.) Gideon anticipates the Comet Empire fleet will advance straight through the Saturn area. Several officers question this assumption. Gideon is evasive in his response, but assures them that the enemy will come to Saturn. He has a plan to guarantee it. He dismisses the meeting, refusing to elaborate any further.

This scene is a bit different in Yamato 2. There is an additional clip of the Saturn area map (the same as the one at the President’s meeting), and several locations are mentioned during Captain Hijikata’s [Gideon’s] briefing. With the entire EDF fleet in the Saturn area, Hijikata has them spread out among the moons Hyperion, Rhea, Iapetus, and Dione, and in the Cassini gap within Saturn’s rings.

Hijikata does not mention a plan to force the enemy to Titan. Instead, the original script delves into the psychology of the Comet Empire fleet officers. When it’s suggested that the enemy may outflank the EDF fleet, Hijikata explains that this would not be the Comet Empire way. They possess a much stronger force and would only engage in a head-on confrontation. Either Hijikata is displaying amazing ESP-like insight, or Teresa [Trelaina] had passed along some information about Comet Empire tactics.

Story note: this is the first time we see a large group of EDF naval officers, presumably captains, gathered in one place. Their uniforms place them in two categories. The black peacoats (like Gideon’s) are most likely higher-ranking officers whereas the blue coats (like Wildstar’s) are lower ranks; we last saw Wildstar wear his coat when the Argo was assigned to escort duty.

Wildstar reports to Gideon’s office for a private conference where the Captain lays out his plans for a surprise attack. Last episode, recon crafts on both sides were wiped out (each side apparently only had one), but the Argo‘s time radar managed to record enough information during their unscheduled stop at Brumis to gauge the size of the enemy fleet, giving Earth a slight advantage.

The Comet Empire forces are in two groups, with the main force up front and a carrier group behind. There’s a considerable distance between the two, and Gideon intends to take advantage of that. Wildstar is instructed to lead a carrier group, swing around behind the main enemy fleet, and attack their carriers. The Comet Empire’s “Scorpion” fighters are estimated to have twice the range of their EDF counterparts, so they pose a considerable threat. Knocking them out early will help level the playing field. The Star Blazers script reveals Gideon’s plan for dealing with the main fleet; Wildstar’s attack will drive the remaining Comet Empire forces to Titan.

A quiet, peaceful view of space is suddenly shattered by the sight of the Comet Empire main fleet, accompanied by the blaring disco version of the Comet Empire theme. General Bleek receives a call from General Manic, Commander of the Carrier Group. Bleek’s strategy is to have the carrier force hang back and launch fighters as soon as they’re within range. Bleek’s fleet will essentially act as a shield, preventing any Earth forces from approaching the carriers. While common tactics like outflanking the enemy may not be the Comet Empire’s preferred method, Bleek doesn’t seem to consider the idea that their foe may try it. Either that, or he simply can’t conceive of defeat.

The Argo takes off, leading a small carrier fleet. In the operations room, Wildstar instructs his men on the details of their mission. They will swing around Saturn’s moons (Phoebe and Iapetus) and search for the enemy in that general area. Conroy will recon the starboard flank and Hardy the port flank. They are relying on visual sightings; no radar, and no communications except in emergencies. Sandor volunteers to reconnoiter with IQ-9. The Star Blazers dialogue again stresses that the remaining enemy fleet must be driven to Titan.

Sandor’s fighter passes by Iapetus. Star Blazers crops off Yamato 2‘s caption for the moon, and, in doing so, the fighter itself, which was toward the bottom of the screen. The three search teams are launched. Conroy and Hardy both have a small squadron to aid them, while Sandor and IQ-9 search solo.

At Titan, Gideon is informed by his Executive Officer (XO) that the search has begun.

Conroy and Hardy both grouse to themselves over the difficulty of trying to find a fleet in the vast emptiness of space. (In Yamato 2, Akira Yamamoto [Hardy] compares it to trying to find a goldfish in the Pacific Ocean.) In Sandor’s fighter, IQ-9 scans local space. Finding nothing, he suggests increasing power, but Sandor nixes the idea. If he uses too much power, the enemy might find them first.

On board the Argo, Wildstar is so anxious that he can’t sit down. Venture tries to put him at ease.

Sandor approaches Phoebe, which looks a lot bluer and rounder in the animated universe than in our own. It also has a slightly different name; Sandor calls it Phoebus (“Fee-bus”) instead of Phoebe. (Homer and Dash also call it Phoebus in a later scene. The writers may have confused it with another moon, Mars’s satellite Phobos.)

Gideon paces around the bridge of the Andromeda, asking for updates from his men and staring at the situation displays on the overhead monitors.

The back-and-forth scenes between the search parties and the anxious commanders help to steadily build the tension. This is aided by the suspenseful background music, which underscores the danger lurking nearby.

Sandor sweeps low over the surface of Phoebe. Just as he becomes concerned by the lack of enemy contact, IQ-9 reports communication signals nearby. Moments later, Sandor sees the enemy fleet come into view over the horizon. He contacts the Argo.

Dash practically jumps out of his seat at the news. Wildstar orders Conroy and Hardy to begin the attack immediately. Carrier #1 launches its squadron. Like other carriers in the Yamato/Star Blazers universe, it uses artificial gravity for its launch procedures, so fighter take-off looks much as it does on Earth, complete with deck officers using hand signals to guide the planes around. The launch sequence is accompanied by the disco version of the Yamato theme.

At least four squadrons launch, followed by the Argo‘s Black Tiger Squadron. Wildstar leads the Tigers personally. Unless regulations changed in the intervening centuries, this would not be allowed during a military operation. As commanding officer–not only of his ship, but of a small carrier group–Wildstar would be expected to remain on the Argo‘s bridge for the duration of hostilities. (In Wildstar’s defense, he isn’t shown actually taking part in any of the fighting. He stays out of the way and directs the attack.)

Additional note from Matt Murray: Although disco originated in the US, it would seem that the Star Blazers producers may have been less fond of the disco tracks than the Japanese, as the disco version of the Yamato theme used in this scene fades out considerably earlier in Star Blazers than in the original episode.

The Yamato series is essentially “WWII in space,” and the use of fighters fits in with that theme. In real life, the use of manned fighters in space is unlikely to become a reality. Fighter pilots are a dying breed. There’s even a phrase repeated in military circles: “The last fighter pilot has already been born.” More and more, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a. remote controlled drones) is preferred over live pilots. Pilots have been a limiting factor in aircraft as far back as the 1940s, when the abilities of jet engines began to outstrip the limits of flesh and blood. In the vacuum of space, fighter craft would go even faster, pulling high-G turns that would kill even the healthiest pilot.

Back at the Comet Empire’s carrier fleet, Scorpion fighters are armed and raised to the flight decks. In Yamato 2, they are preparing to begin the actual attack. Star Blazers rewrites the script so they are merely starting practice maneuvers, adding an extra layer of unpreparedness. Manic is nearly speechless when the Earth fighters are spotted, already inbound. Yamato 2 includes a shot of the radar screen. If each dot on the display represents a fighter, it looks as though there are approximately 100 planes in the first wave alone.

Additional note from Matt Murray: The screen shot may have been removed because the editors believed the text on the screen was actually Japanese. However, despite some undeniable similarities, the characters are definitely from a fictional alien alphabet.

The first wave, led by Conroy, begins their attack upon arrival. The Astro fighters are armed with powerful missiles that are capable of causing major damage. As one carrier comes under attack, one of its officers shouts a warning. This was seen in Star Blazers, but the follow-up where he is knocked over by a nearby explosion was edited out. Conroy’s squadron is soon joined by another, led by Hardy.

The following sequence contains a number of shots that make it one of the most visually engaging battles in the series. Some personal favorites:

-a Comet Empire fighter blowing up in the mouth of a hangar

-a shot where the camera follows an Astro Fighter as it swoops down over a carrier

-another fighter crashing and burning on its runway, strafed during an attempted takeoff

Production note: The storyboard for this episode is another tour de force by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, who acquits himself as well with heavy-duty action scenes as he does with intimate character moments. It’s also worth noting that mecha and effects-heavy episodes like this one are notoriously difficult to produce. Its counterpart in Series 1 was the battle with Lysis’ fleet at the Rainbow Star Group, but this one has many more ships and a LOT more fireworks. The fact that it could be done at all is a testament to the skills and dedication of the animators, especially since the working conditions were no less forgiving four years after Series 1 was made.

These action scenes are intercut with clips of Manic, showing his growing desperation. He attempts to get an effective counterattack going, but fails at every turn. Then he receives word that a squadron of torpedo planes is approaching.

Story note: The torpedo planes are newly-improved Cosmo Tigers. The nose is shorter, the paint scheme is dark red, and each carries two torpedoes. Like the Cosmo Tiger itself, they were originally designed for Farewell to Yamato but didn’t get as much screentime as they do here.

Wildstar orders Conroy and Hardy’s squadrons to disengage and allow the torpedo planes to do the heavy work. Each carries only two torpedoes, but they are designed to pack a punch. A half dozen are let loose on a carrier and demolish it in seconds.

On board the CE flagship, General Bleek is contacted by Manic. Bleek is not very sympathetic to Manic’s plight, dismissing him with the advice, “you know what to do.” He’s slightly more helpful in Yamato 2, where he instructs Gerun [Manic] to have his escort ships move in and provide cover for the carriers.

Manic’s forces rally briefly, taking out at least two torpedo planes, but it’s too little, too late. (Another scene of note: a carrier’s anti-aircraft beam unexpectedly shoots right toward the camera, followed immediately by a scene-cut to an exploding torpedo plane.) Another capital ship explodes, while yet another is heavily damaged. The Argo moves in, preparing to finish the job.

The flagship begins to break up. In Star Blazers, we see one last scene with Manic, who thinks, “So… we didn’t win our first battle…” just before the flagship explodes. This was a bit gentler than the fate that befell him in the original Japanese version: Gerun draws his pistol and shoots himself in the chest, pulling the trigger just as an aide appears and urges him to evacuate. As he’s dying, Gerun sputters an apology to Baruze [Bleek].

Dash takes Wildstar’s seat to command the Argo‘s gunnery crews. The enemy fleet is no longer able to fight back, so the Argo‘s “cleanup” work amounts to little more than target practice. In short order, the Comet Empire carrier fleet is completely destroyed.

At Titan, Gideon receives word of the mission’s success and that the other enemy ships remain on course.

On the other side of the battle lines, General Bleek is also apprised of the situation. Earlier, he told Manic that his carriers played an important role. He must not have meant it, since he casually writes them off, confident that they won’t be needed. After all, they still have the Magna-Flame Gun. Bleek’s reaction reinforces the perception that he possesses a great amount of arrogance and inflexibility, since the loss of his carrier fleet doesn’t seem to change his strategy in the least.

The Earth President is pleased to hear that the first battle was a success. However, the main fleet still has to be defeated, and the Comet Empire itself has just entered the Solar System.

The Star Force receives a message from Gideon to rejoin the fleet and prepare for the main engagement.

Story note: the successful annihilation of the Comet Empire carrier fleet by surprise attack is estimated to take place on February 16, 2202, at space time 13:05. The battle between the main fleet and the Earth fleet is predicted to begin at 21:00. The Star Force heads for Titan, but the White Comet has already passed the orbit of Brumis, having entered the solar system at 13:00.

Perhaps more than any other episode, this one has the feel of a WWII battle in space. Specifically, it bears several similarities to the Battle of Midway, which was an attempt by the Imperial Japanese Navy to crush the American Carrier force. Interestingly, the Comet Empire seems to be playing the Japanese role. The idea of two Comet Empire fleets separated by some distance echoes Admiral Yamamoto’s insistence to disperse his forces at Midway. It played out for the Comet Empire much as it did for Admiral Yamamoto, where his forces couldn’t support one another.

Just as the EDF had advance knowledge of the enemy fleet configuration, the US had an advantage because it had broken Japanese codes and was prepared for the Midway attack. However, much of the battle still depended on good reconnaissance and blind luck, much as we see in this episode.

Continue to Episode 21

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