Something Else on Cinema XVI
Yamato‘s Space Odyssey
“Odysseus’s prolific mobility expresses a deep empathy for the mysteries of the extrahuman world”
(Paul Zweig, The Adventurer: The Fate of Adventure in the Western World, translated by Yasuo Nakamura)
A reddish-brown sphere floats in blue space. Compared to the quiet glare of the scattered white stars, the reddish-brown sphere is ugly and bizarre. The unnaturalness of something that should shine in that blue space being forcibly twisted and defiled makes it even uglier and more suffocating. This reddish-brown sphere is the Earth of 2199. The animated film Space Battleship Yamato is about a long journey into space to regenerate a blue and green Earth.
Like Odysseus, who reached Ithaca at the end of his journey, there is a climax scene in which the astronauts of the 22nd century finally return to Earth from Iscandar, a planet beyond the Magellanic Nebula. They see it floating in the distance from the Space Cruiser Yamato. At the end of their “return from the stars,” they are moved to see Earth floating in the distance.
It is even more reddish-brown than it was at the beginning of the film. Despite this, none of the astronauts who call it home can hide their joy at returning. A Soviet astronaut, who saw Earth from space for the first time in human history said, “The Earth is blue.” The Earth seen by astronauts in 2199 is as ugly and reddish brown as corroded metal. Still, they rejoice. “We made it back to Earth!” Come to think of it, these astronauts had been living on a reddish-brown Earth since birth, and had never seen a green Earth, so they were thrilled to see the red. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that they are so moved by the reddish Earth floating in the vastness of blue space.
In a wonderful short story by science-fiction writer Fredric Brown titled Something Green, an astronaut crash-lands on a planet. There is no green on this planet. It is covered with reddish brown rocks.
The astronaut desires “green” more than food, more than a friend to talk to. He dreams of returning to Earth one day, “the only green planet in the universe.” The astronaut continues to live on this planet with Dorothy, a bird perched on his shoulder. Finally, after five years, a spaceship discovers the unfortunate man. Finally, he can return to the green Earth! The astronaut rejoices with the bird perched on his shoulder. But his search for green has already driven him mad.
A rescuer says to the man, “You think it’s been five years, but fifty years have passed. You believe you have a creature on your shoulder, but you’re hallucinating. But that kind of mental exhaustion will pass as soon as you return to Mars.”
“Yes, the Earth is no more. We humans are now living on the red planet Mars.”
The rescue worker’s words cut the thread of tension in the man. There is no longer a green Earth. In his madness, the man shoots and kills the rescue team members and burns down the spaceship as well. In his despair and madness, the man’s eyes see the burning flames turn green for a moment.
The man shouts at Dorothy, the bird he has hallucinated as perched on his shoulder: “Did you see it, Dorothy? That’s green. It’s a color you won’t find anywhere else but the planet we’re trying to reach. It’s the most beautiful color in the universe, Dorothy. Green. I know where there is a planet full of green. It’s the one and only place, and that’s where we’re going.”
Of course, Space Battleship Yamato is not as hopeless as this. It’s an adventurous journey into space to save the planet. It is a gentle story in which the Earth is saved through the efforts of the “adventurers.” Despite this, it is undeniable that the reddish-brown Earth shown at the beginning and the end of the film looks strangely vivid in blue space. I was amazed at how “normal” it seemed to the Yamato astronauts returning to that reddish-brown sphere.
The best thing about Yamato is not the story itself but the visuals. The image of Yamato, with its soft curves, floating in a space like the cosmic ocean is enough to seize the viewer’s heart. It even reminds us of the Ginga Tetsudo (Galactic Railroad), a train without rails that ran across the galaxy carrying Giovasoni and Campanella. [Translator’s note: this refers to Night on the Galactic Railroad, one of the inspirations for Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express.]
In a manga by Shotaro Ishimori, there is also an old sailing ship flying in the sky called Ghost Ship. However, it is no match for the beauty of Yamato, which slowly makes its way toward Iscandar against the backdrop of the blue universe. Most rockets in science fiction are functional and streamlined. Yamato is a soft, feminine cruiser. The Battleship Yamato can only be seen in part when it is out to sea, but the Space Battleship Yamato can be seen in its entirety. This also makes for a fresh picture.
The year is 2199. Earth is under attack by invaders from outer space, the Gamilas aliens. The surface of Earth has been damaged by radiation, and the people have no choice but to survive in an underground city. The situation is the same as the underground city Yamato in Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix: Yamato/Space. Attacks from the Gamilas are becoming more and more severe, and Earth has become a reddish brown mass on the verge of death.
To save Earth, the planet Iscandar, located beyond the great Magellanic Nebula, sends a helping hand. On Iscandar, there is a Cosmo Cleaner that removes radiation. If they retrieve it and return to Earth, the planet will be able to regenerate. Why Iscandar, 150,000 light-years away, would want to save Earth is unclear. But rather than quibble with such theories, we are here to “empathize” with the “mysteries of the non-human world” by becoming “crew members” of Yamato on its journey to the cosmic ocean.
Yamato passes Mars and Pluto in the blink of an eye to travel out of the galaxy and into the universe. Yamato is truly an Odysseus of space. Compared to the strange “empathy” of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the anime Space Battleship Yamato has a much smaller scale, but still, “seeing Earth from outer space” still gives me a sense of surprise. It is the dizzying experience of someone sitting in a planetarium, staring up at the starry sky and being sucked into the cosmic ocean….
When it comes to technical details, it is true that many parts of the film are rather crude and uninteresting. In particular, compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is no way around the terrible music. It is a bit odd that they tried to decorate a space odyssey with a pop sound like a “young singer.” At the very least, they should have used 2000 Light Years from Home by the Rolling Stones.
It’s also boring that the young astronauts’ lines are so pedestrian, as if everyday life had entered into the “transparent blue.” SF must be further removed from reality, or the trip effect will be lost.
The Gamilas planet that attacks Yamato is not very inventive, with rulers whose names I have heard somewhere, such as Leader Dessler, Vice President Hyss, General Domel, etc. The enemy that interferes with the space Odysseus should have been a mythical, unknowable “phenomenon.”
But there is no point in complaining about such trivialities. I should instead express my “deep empathy” for the “extra-human mysteries” captured by the animation technique. In fact, the sight of Yamato gliding among the stars is dazzling. “Adventurers” in the blue sea of space. A bleak landscape with no one around. A space where one does not know where to go. Looking at them, I somehow forget about myself. Food, sex, family, politics, society, relationships. All of these mundane human events suddenly disappear into the blue, empty space and you are left alone, silent as a stone.
One of the qualities of science-fiction films and novels is such transparency.
In this film, there is a beautiful scene in which Yamato is drifting on a “sea” while being drenched by “rain.” (Actually, it’s a rain of sulfuric acid…) It was impressive that the astronauts closed their eyes in contemplation, even though they were in the middle of a battle with Gamilas. They might have been absorbed into the transparent infinity at that moment and forget about the reddish-brown Earth.
“When I look at the stars and contemplate the infinity of the universe, I suddenly feel like bursting into tears.”
“It is neither despair nor sensation, but a kind of resonance between the finiteness of thought and the helplessness of the body.”
(Kobo Abe, The Fourth Interglacial Period)
Perhaps it is because of such a fellow that, in an “encounter with the unknown” of the universe, we are moved to the point that our hearts feel a tingling sensation. The moment when the universe bares itself to us, if my body were to become a fragment of a star and continue to float on the edge of the universe, it would be a very beautiful “self-annihilation” indeed.
In the film Marooned, directed by John Sturges, there is one unforgettable scene. An astronaut commits suicide when his spaceship malfunctions and he is unable to return to Earth. There are three astronauts on the spacecraft, but only enough oxygen for two of them. One of them must die. The captain, determined to die, secretly opens the hatch of the spaceship and leaves. At that moment, his body is sucked into the darkness by a strong force from outer space. There is no denying that this terrifying scene is at the same time the most beautiful in the film.
In Space Battleship Yamato there is a beautiful scene of “space burial” for astronauts who died in the battle against Gamilas. The capsules containing their bodies drift away and disappear like the passing away of living souls. Of course, this film is for children, so it was made in a very gentle way. However, I cannot deny that the scene looked dark and beautiful.
And I secretly fantasized that instead of returning to the reddish-brown Earth, the people of Yamato would be embraced by Queen Starsha in the unknown blue waters of Iscandar.
One day, if someone called to me from Iscandar, the “green planet” of the Great Magellanic Nebula, I would forget about saving the reddish brown Earth. Much better to be sucked into the great unknown darkness…
“There are only a handful of people who have followed this path to the end.”
(J.G. Ballard, Screen Game)