Echoes of Yamato

Since its debut, Space Battleship Yamato has come to fill essentially the same niche in Japanese pop culture that Star Trek fills in the English-speaking world. For example, the concept of Star Trek has endured long enough and through so many incarnations that verbal shorthand is enough to invoke the entire gestalt. In other words, everyone “gets it” when you talk about beaming up or living long & prospering. (And who can’t do a passable Shatner impression? But that’s a subject for another website.)

The same is true of Yamato in Japan. The ship is every bit as distinctive and recognizable as the Enterprise, and inspires exactly the same reverence. Of course, Yamato has a link to living history as well, named both for the revolutionary battleship of World War II and also the historic clan that founded Japan itself. One can even stretch the phenomenon into the realm of classic mythology, taking its place alongside stories of fallen heroes who sleep under the Earth until they one day awake to lead defeated peoples into a brighter future. Whichever chord Yamato strikes, it resonates with immortality.

On a more superficial level, legions of anime artists in Japan cite Yamato as a prime influence in their career choice, and many of them have taken opportunities to pay their respects. Here are some of them, for your consideration.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978)

The first echo was actually heard while Yamato was climbing to the peak of its popularity. In episode 13 of Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Pirate TV series, the Arcadia travels to the Sargasso Sea, from which rises the rusted hulk of an ancient battleship, motivated by a ghostly force. Harlock and his crew do battle with the vessel, which is never specifically named…but the contours are unmistakable.

The Daicon animated shorts (1981/83)

If you’re looking for a great fan story, get a load of this one. Back in the late 1970’s, a hugely popular science-fiction/fantasy convention got going in Japan under the name Daicon, which literally translates to “Big Con.” (It’s also the name of an Asian radish, and this lead to some creative parody.) Daicon III in 1981 became a flashpoint in anime history when a group of fledgling animators produced a 5-minute short for the opening ceremonies. This now-legendary film started with the scenario of cute girl vs. evil robot and devolved into an orgy of destruction with loving cameos of numerous SF icons from both Japan and America. In the midst of this melee, Yamato proudly featured on screen for about two seconds before it was blasted into molecules.

Enjoyable as it was, the Daicon III short might have faded into obscurity if not for its successor at Daicon IV in 1983. Clocking in at about 6 minutes and benefiting from a quantum leap in technical skills, this followup brought back the cute girl (now grown into arguably the first anime cheesecake babe) and plunged her into an even bigger swath of chaos. The references and cameos came at what can still be described as a dizzying pace, sometimes occupying the screen for only a frame or two. Once again, not even Yamato could escape. The Daicon films are considered landmarks for many reasons, mainly for what they begat: buoyed by critical success, the artists later formed Studio Gainax and went on to create many of their own anime icons.

See Daicon III on YouTube here and Daicon IV here.

Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982)

Just as Robotech followed in Star Blazers’ footsteps on American TV, Macross tailed Yamato in Japan. The first Macross TV series premiered October 3rd, 1982 while Final Yamato was in production. Macross’ popularity was cemented with its own feature film in 1984, in which its pedigree as a “child” of Yamato was firmly established. At least three Yamato veterans made significant contributions to Macross; Director Noboru Ishiguro had been with Yamato since Series 1 (see one of our many features on him here), Mecha Designer Kazutaka Miyatake had been a resident designer since the very beginning (read about him here), and Composer Kentara Haneda had been a member of the Yamato orchestra since Farewell.

While Macross’ storyline moved in a different direction, it consciously picked up on Yamato‘s visual cues when it came to space battles and the occasional character design, Captain Gloval being the prime example. Leiji Matsumoto is recognized as having set the design standard for the quintessential space captain (not only in Yamato, but also his many other works), and it was only proper for Captain Gloval to have graduated from the “Matsumoto naval academy.”

Odin: Photon Sailor Starlight (1985)

This feature film is as strong a Yamato homage as one could wish for, being the brainchild of Yamato‘s exec producer himself, Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Opinions vary, however, on whether Nishizaki set out to consciously create an homage or simply didn’t push himself far enough into fresh territory. Many of his key Yamato staff members contributed to the film, so it cannot help but resemble their previous works. But Odin is not different enough from Yamato to be more than evocative. This is not to denigrate the effort and craftsmanship that went into the movie, which are top notch from start to finish. Despite this, Odin isn’t much more than an alternate reality Yamato, and viewers don’t really have an opportunity to take the film on its own merits. (It wasn’t helped by the fact that the movie was salvaged from an aborted TV series that never got to play itself out.) That said, it’s the closest thing to Yamato without actually being Yamato, and that’s not altogether a bad thing if you wish there were more of it. If nothing else, Odin certainly saved the Yamato sound effects library from an early retirement.

Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water (1989)

Another graduate from the Matsumoto naval academy was (ironically) the original fantasy captain himself, Jules Verne’s Nemo. Nadia sported a brilliant new incarnation of Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. The series debuted during a period of relative quiet in TV anime, developed from early story ideas by Director Hayao Miyazaki. It not only rose to heights of popularity that rivaled Yamato‘s, but also put its Supervising Director, Hideaki Anno, on a path that would lead him to create Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Yamato‘s influence on Nadia was not only evident, it was worn with honor since Anno was a huge fan from the beginning of Series 1. Captain Nemo was a perfect echo of Captain Okita (uniform and all), and the climactic episodes featured a Nautilus that could have had Yamato at its core. Camera angles, color schemes, interior design, and even sound effects were sampled directly from Yamato in a particularly well-crafted homage that evokes the gravitas of its source rather than plagiarizing it.

Graffiti of Otaku Generation (1993)

Known locally as Otaku no Video, this hilarious direct-to-video series took the concept of the Daicon videos another step, as only Studio Gainax could. In a sterling example of navel-gazing, the story focuses on the world of anime fandom in the 1980s. We follow the rise (or fall, depending on your viewpoint) of an ordinary person into total anime geekdom as he and his companions attempt to market a figurine which looks suspiciously like the Daicon girl. Ultimately, they build a global empire founded on their love of anime, manga, SF, and all relevant obsessions. Of course, Yamato costumes and images figure strongly in their quest.

In the end, they model themselves on anime characters and blaze forth into the future with the burning romance of something or other. Otaku no video (which translates to “Video of Fanboys”) is one of the funniest anime programs ever made. “Funniest of its kind” would be an inappropriate description, since it exists in a category all its own.

Golden Boy (1995)

This is the briefest and definitely most obscure echo on this list. In episode 3 of this mini-series, which has nothing to do with Yamato and isn’t even science fiction, we find a genuine homage, seemingly to the original battleship rather than the anime version. But on very close inspection, you will notice telltale design changes that link one to the other. To say more would ruin the surprise…

To Love Ru (2008)

Here’s a recent entry that carries on the grand tradition. This was a 26-episode comedy TV series based on a manga of the same name. (Read more about it here.) Here’s a description of what happens in Episode 19, provided by friend-of-the-site Walter Amos:

To Love Ru is apparently about an alien girl named Lala, living with a nebbishy Japanese schoolboy as she tries to learn about human culture. In episode 19 she becomes interested in hot springs. Since there is no natural hot spring nearby, she builds an underground drill machine to burrow through the Earth’s crust down to the magma layer to make one. Among the ensuing hilarity is a scene where the principal characters, escaping the inevitable exploding pyroclastic flows, accidentally happen across the underground mole civilization “The Kingdom of the Earth’s Depths.” There, the Leader Mole “Rui Build-Sama” is making a speech to his minions about their glorious plan to conquer the surface world. As his legions chant “Build-sama Banzai!” (a la “Soto Banzai!”) the drill machine breaks through a wall and stops in front of him. He asks the alien girl if she is a surface dweller, and she replies that she’s actually a space alien.

The machine drives on, but the magma flowing close behind buries the mole civilization and destroys their plans of conquest. The exploding underground volcanoes, and Build-Sama’s reaction to the destruction of his civilization, should look very familiar.

The Matsumoto Universe

During his illustrious career (now over 50 years and counting), Leiji Matsumoto has entertained, baffled, delighted, and infuriated his fans by creating a huge pantheon of interrelated characters and then stubbornly refusing to apply one set of rules to them. It’s common, even expected, for a Matsumoto character to wander through many incarnations that fit into some stories but not others. It’s a pointless exercise to draw a straight line from one Matsumoto story to another, but it’s no effort at all to enjoy each one as it unfolds. For many years, Matsumoto kept his characters in his own wholly-owned multiverse, but he kept everyone guessing when he decided to add Yamato to the mix in the late 1990s. This intriguing move fell outside the realm of homage; as Yamato‘s co-creator, Matsumoto was eminently qualified to bring the “real thing” back to life.

Galaxy Express 999

As Matsumoto’s most expansive story, Galaxy Express 999 has functioned as both a proving ground and a clearinghouse for many of his other concepts. Captain Harlock and his entourage have stepped in and out of the Galaxy Express stories on a regular basis, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that we learned Yamato also existed in that universe. This was Yamato‘s first appearance in the larger Leijiverse, and it would not be the last. Owing to complex copyright issues, we only see the ship from the outside. On that score, she’s exactly as we remember her; not a rivet or seam out of place. Inside, however, only Leiji knows who is at the helm. We get neither a glimpse nor a mention. We only know that Yamato is one of the most powerful battleships in all of space, alongside Harlock’s Arcadia and another vessel called the Super Dimensional Battleship Mahoroba.

If you’re wondering what became of Mahoroba after this appearance, click here.

More often than not, a Matsumoto story begins as a manga before moving to other mediums. This was how Yamato made her debut, showing up in the Galaxy Express manga before subsequently appearing in the closing sequence of 1998’s Galaxy Express: Eternal Fantasy anime special (above left). She also turned up in 2001’s Story of Galaxy Express999 video game for Playstation (CG model shown above right). As if that wasn’t enough, the game features Queen Starsha and a blue version of Analyzer, also called “Analyzer.”

Fire Force DNA sights (1999)

This confusingly-titled anime special came and went with little notice, since it had little to do with other Matsumoto stories and lacked multimedia support. The main character, Tetsuro Daiba (an amalgam of boys from Galaxy Express and Space Pirate Captain Harlock), fights his way off a ruined Planet Earth and into the stars, assisted by a circle of very typical Matsumoto characters. Without anticipation or announcement, Captain Harlock shows up at the end of the program to wish Daiba luck, and then, even more unexpectedly, Yamato cruises silently by, as beautifully rendered as we’ve ever seen her. Yamato‘s appearance makes it possible to link this story to Galaxy Express, but since nothing more has been done with these characters (as of this writing) the connection yields nothing useful.

Captain Harlock: the endless odyssey (2002)

It’s quick and barely noticeable, but this most recent incarnation of Captain Harlock (the spelling changes occasionally, so don’t let it confuse you) contains another echo near the beginning of its 4th episode. Yattaran, a member of Harlock’s crew, is a consummate fanboy and plastic model builder. Among his vast treasure horde of kits is Yamato. Specifically, one from Final Yamato. Of course, Captain Harlock’s involvement with Yamato goes far deeper than this, since he was originally slated to appear in Series 1. Read all about that plan (and its fate) here.

CosmoWarrior Zero (2001)

In perhaps the most delightfully creative Yamato echo of them all, this Matsumoto story features (as a prominent character) a very familiar-looking robot with the official name of “Battle Analyzer” and the nickname of “Battlyzer.” Battlyzer has a personal mission to find a legendary space battleship (no name given), but takes time off from this quest to meet Captain Warrius Zero during his crusade against Captain Harlock. Within this concept, we have two branching variants, which is entirely consistent with the Matsumoto way of doing business.

CosmoWarrior Zero first came to life as a 1999 video game for Playstation, an enjoyable first-person shooter that offers a lively tour through other Matsumoto realms. Battlyzer is one of many opponents in the game, in which we learn that not only can he fight, he can also transform (or, more accurately, deform) into a mini-Yamato. Guns and all. It’s something you have to see to believe.

In a clever and genuinely heartbreaking finale, we learn that Battlyzer is actually searching for his brother Analyzer, who is a crewmember on board that legendary space battleship. (See more details here.) After the Playstation game, CosmoWarrior Zero traveled to TV for a 15-episode series. In this version, Battlyzer appears as a crewmember on Zero’s ship. Alas, no mention is made of the transforming ability or the robot brother.

Whatever his intentions, Matsumoto makes one thing very clear; seeing Yamato in action again, however briefly, gives every viewer a rush of emotion. It’s a powerful blend of nostalgia and hope, ignited by that resonance with immortality. In the end, perhaps it’s enough to know Yamato‘s still out there, even if she isn’t exactly what she used to be.

The End

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