Episode 25 Commentary

Argo, Shoot The Sun!

By Arthur Painter (with notes from Tim Eldred)

This episode originally ran long on Japanese TV, so the 90-second opening theme was replaced by a fast-moving track from the score of Be Forever with the narrator catching us up in the first half and the bridge crew setting the pace in the second half. The ship is on its final leg of the journey home and moving at top speed, just 15 hours from Earth.

Star Blazers skipped the intro and starts on Earth, where even the underground cities are feeling the effects of the dying sun. On the surface, the temperature is 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Underground it’s around 100. In EDF HQ, Commander Singleton [Todo] learns that their cooling system will only hold out for 10 more days. They could cut power by 1/3 and make it last a month, but that would make conditions unlivable.

Singleton has held his position as EDF Commander since the beginning of the saga, and in that time he’s faced all kinds of threats, from alien war machines to brain melting mega-bombs to weasely politicians. In all this time, we’ve never seen him take so much as a vacation! (I used to wonder if maybe he’s in his 30s and the stress of his job aged him prematurely, but the presence of a granddaughter blows that theory out of the water.) All that pressure now takes its toll; he clutches his chest and collapses to the floor.

An officer who looks like General Stone (though with a smaller frame and darker hair) helps him to his seat, and as he begins to recover they receive a call from the Star Force. They were unable to find a second Earth, but they received the Hydro Cosmo Penultimate Cannon [Hydro Cosmogen] from Gardiana [Shalbart] to restore the sun. Time is of the essence, so the Argo positions itself in front of the sun, which is now 3.5 times its normal size, and prepares to fire.

Jason Jetter [Ryuske Domon] has been given responsibility over the HCP Cannon. He pushes a button and retracts the Cannon’s protective cover, revealing that the device has been installed in the dome on the forward deck of the ship. Jason checks in with the Engine Room and Computer Room to make sure everything is functioning properly. In the American dub, when IQ-9 [Analyzer] reports in, he speaks with a completely new voice. Most likely, his regular actor was unavailable for this one and only line, but for story’s sake, we can pretend he had a new voice chip installed.

Countdown sequences have become a standard dramatic prop (or cliche) in the Yamato series, from the ship’s narrow escapes at Balan and the tunnel satellite to the nail-biting simultaneous countdowns during encounters with Desslok. In Yamato, any time a character starts counting backwards, fans should be on the edge of their seat. (Heck, even when nothing unusual happens, the countdowns typically lead to a trippy warp sequence, or the Wave-Motion gun blasts something into atoms!) So it’s not much of a surprise that when the count reaches one–wait, make that two!–the expected unexpected happens. The ship shudders from the impact of several energy beams. Bolar ships have just warped in.

Wildstar orders the crew to combat stations and Jason retracts the HCP Cannon. Your typical Yamato battle begins, with the hero ship taking hit after hit while demolishing enemy ships with one shock cannon blast. But then Nova [Yuki] detects a giant object warping in.

The “giant object” is the “Bolar Space Fortress,” which looks like someone took a dozen death stars and stuck them all together. It’s massive. Bolar Prime Minister Bemlayze is in personal command of the fortress, which features a new weapon, the “black hole gun.” One of the globe-modules releases a ball of energy which sails past the Argo and explodes.

The explosion forms into an artificial black hole that threatens to pull in the ship with its massive gravity field. The Argo has to redirect all of its energy to the engines, and even then it only manages to hold itself in place. Fortunately, the black hole effect is temporary and fades away after a short amount of time.

To create a true black hole would require the energy of a giant star. These artificial “black holes” appear to be a form of gravity weapon, which is an interesting extrapolation of existing in-universe technology. Every spacefaring race in the Yamato series is shown to have some kind of gravity control on their ships. It’s a small intuitive leap to go from using artificial gravity as a tool to using it as a weapon. The black hole gun is a concept that could use a good visual to really sell the idea, but the animation falls short. (It was finally done right in the CG animation for the 2010 Yamato III pachinko game.)

Nova detects more ships warping in (about 100, according to Yamato III). The cavalry has arrived–it’s the Galman fleet, led by Desslok in his giant flagship. The Galman fleet fires a simultaneous salvo in from the noses of their ships, which eliminates all of the Bolar forces except for the fortress. These nose cannons are referred to as “Excelsior” or “Dessler” guns, smaller versions of the mega-weapon on Desslok’s ship.

Desslok contacts Wildstar. He will deal with the Bolar Fortress while the Star Force gets on with saving Earth. Wildstar orders Jetter to reactivate the HCP Cannon and the Cosmo Tigers are sent out to form a defensive screen around the ship.

Desslok commands his forces to concentrate fire on the Bolar Space Fortress. The main fleet once again fires their nose cannons in unison, but this time it has no effect. Round two consists of taunting, with Bemlayze and Desslok exchanging quips back and forth. Bemlayze claims that he cares nothing about the Earth ship. The entire goal of this attack was to draw out Desslok.

Additional note from superfan Andrea Controzzi: My Japanese is basic, but according to what I understand, Bemlayze is very rude to Dessler by not using any honorific. He proves himself no better than a pig, which he also resembles. Dessler instead is very formal and polite to him (of course, rubbing his nose in his lack of class) and even asks how he should arrange his funeral–the best line ever from Dessler, in my opinion. [End of note.]

Bemlayze fires the black hole gun several times, which decimates the Galman fleet. And here is another example of a common problem in these last few Series 3 episodes: a terrible sense of pacing. The drama ramps up much too quickly. We go from Desslok trading quips with Bemlayze to his fleet in ruins in the span of 90 seconds. And the worst part is we don’t actually see the destruction of the Galman fleet!

We see one Galman ship destroyed and several more struggling from the multiple “black holes” Bemlayze created around the battlefield. The scope of the actual damage is revealed in a line of dialogue from Talan/Masterson, who tells Desslok that “we’re nearly wiped out!” (And remember, Desslok arrived with nearly 100 ships!) We have to take Talan’s word for it, because very little of it is shown on screen. In a visual storytelling medium, that’s a cardinal sin.

Meanwhile, the Argo positions itself in front of the sun. A squadron of Bolar fighters approaches the ship but is intercepted by the Cosmo Tigers. The HCP cannon’s protective cover is not opening due to battle damage. Jason ignores Wildstar’s warnings, dons a helmet and runs out onto the foredeck to fix it.

Special note: Arthur and I both ramble a bit after the end of this synopsis, so the pictures go a little out of sync from here.

Jason soon becomes a target for a Bolar fighter. Flash tries to protect his friend as it strafes the deck, but despite firing a barrage of bullets (they look like solid rounds, not energy), Flash misses. The Bolar fighter doesn’t. Jason is hit and collapses on the deck. Instead of saving his friend, Flash avenges him, staying on his killer until he finally destroys him.

Meanwhile, Desslok tells Talan to ready the Excelsior Gun [Hyper Dessler Cannon] for firing. There’s quite a difference in tone between the American and Japanese scripts. In Star Blazers, Desslok sounds almost reluctant to use the gun. In Yamato III, he sounds angry and impatient.

With tears streaming down his face, Flash [Takeshi Ageha] heads straight for the black hole gun, flying right through defensive AA fire, spurred on by a vision of Queen Mariposa. Meanwhile, with the last of his strength, Jason crawls over to the cannon cover to start making repairs. Flash, his thoughts full of love for Gardiana and Mariposa, flies right into the mouth of the black hole gun. A bright nimbus of energy marks his passing.

Taking the gun controls in hand, Desslok prepares to fire. In the Japanese version, he poetically promises the “flower [that] bloomed from [Flash’s] blood” will not be in vain. He fires. Bemlayze and his fortress are melted away.

Jetter finishes making the repairs, and the bridge reports the gun is back online. Wildstar prepares to fire and calls Nova over to him. “I can’t do this alone,” he says. She comes over to help pull the trigger, aided by her prayers. After a 10-count, the trigger is pressed and the HCP Cannon shoots a rainbow beam to the sun. Within seconds of screen time the sun fades back to its normal size.

Jason feels a wave of relief and thinks of his parents. “We did it,” he says, in a voice barely more than a whisper. Wildstar, Nova, and Dr. Sane rush onto the deck, but there’s nothing they can do. Jason thanks Wildstar and Nova for taking care of him, then his hand goes limp–Yamato shorthand for death.

A small funeral service follows, held right on the deck. Flowers are placed on Jason’s body and the main staff salutes. Queen Gardiana joins the wake, appearing as a giant ghostly image, holding the body of Flash. She delivers a little sermon about the horrors of war, then fades away, returning to her planet with the spirit of Flash. (So ghosts can live on planet Gardiana now, I guess?)

These homilies about the horrors of war always ring a little hollow to me. Time and again, Yamato is called upon to do battle, and often pays a great price for doing so. And time and again, they come to realize that War Is Bad, which is usually spelled out in an anguished soliloquy or a sermon from a space goddess. Either they’re slow learners or there may be some gaps in this “enlightened teaching.” But at least the prior goddesses, particularly Trelaina, actually did something. Gardiana just preaches. She didn’t lift a finger against the Bolar forces while they were killing Galmans and endangering the Earth. Her platitudes didn’t stop Bemlayze. What stopped him was ramming a space jet into his fortress and then blasting him with a big honkin’ gun! The most Gardiana did was maybe, MAYBE, guide Flash in for his kamikaze run, but that’s a little unclear. And if she did urge Flash into his kamikaze run, wouldn’t her guidance equate to her taking a part in the fighting?

Desslok and Wildstar share a brief goodbye, promising that they will meet again. The Argo returns to Earth, having saved their home world just 30 days from total extinction.

Story note: it is estimated to be August 19, 2206. If Yamato had not succeeded in subduing the sun, the human race would have become extinct on September 18. The number was left open in the script, but the Yamato III novelization by Ken Wakasaki (published by Shueisha) had the clock tick down to just 12 days left.

Then there’s a postscript from producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, promising that the final chapter of Yamato will be coming in the summer of 1982. (It wouldn’t actually come until 1983).

Arthur’s Closing Notes

So Series 3 comes to an end. It started with promise, a nice build-up of the threat to Earth and the discovery of interstellar nations engaged in reckless conflicts. The dozen new crew members had potential. But then the rug was pulled out from under Office Academy and the series was cut in half. As a result, most of the new crew members only made sporadic appearances, and then it was mostly to fill job roles, not to show any character traits.

Jason and Flash were given the most focus from the beginning, so they continued to receive the most attention. But Flash’s story never really takes off. His ailing mother and rocky relationship to his father were never mentioned after the second episode, and his “romance” with Mariposa mostly consisted of him staring at her. Speaking of romance, Wendy and Homer’s relationship was the focus of an early episode, then put on a shelf until midway through the series, revived briefly, and never mentioned again. (Nor is it brought up in any of the subsequent movies. Only Tim Eldred’s Star Blazers webcomics expressed any interest in exploring their relationship further.)

The deaths of Jason and Flash were used to underscore The Big Moral (“war is bad”). They were young and full of promise, and their sacrifices served as reminders that the youngest and most able men are the ones called on to fight and die in war. They were given the most noble of send-offs, sacrificing themselves to save others.

In Star Blazers, much of the emotional heft of the characters is defused by the writing and acting. The script is often too wordy, over-explaining things for the sake of younger viewers. But the elephant in the room–what gets the most criticism among Star Blazers fans–is the voice acting. There’s a sense that, despite containing more “mature” scenes than the previous episodes, there was a deliberate attempt to scale back the drama to kid-friendly levels. The actors never got too intense, no matter what the situation was. Corinne Orr’s Nova tended to sound very soft and maternal, and Wildstar VA John Bellucci’s more dramatic lines tended to sound just slightly excited and hyper. His delivery reminds me more of Burt Ward’s Robin than the original Wildstar.

The limited cast didn’t help. Each actor played multiple roles, so everyone sounds the same, giving a claustrophobic air to the series. Jetter sounds like Flash who sounds like Sakimaki who sounds like Dagon who sounds like Gustav who sounds like anonymous techs # 5 and 18. Consistency didn’t appear to be a big concern either. It seems like scripts were written and performed one at a time, without realizing that certain characters were recurring. Therefore, Orion tends to have a different voice and/or accent every time he appears in the early episodes.

The “put-on” voices were another handicap. It’s hard to get a dramatic reading of a Dr. Sane line when he talks like Squeaky-voiced Teen from The Simpsons. All these things make a huge difference. In the original Star Blazers, most of the cast sounded like real people, and when you make the characters sound like real people, they start to transcend the trappings of ink and paint and celluloid. Without that, we’re just reminded that these characters are just two-dimensional images.

The series had a lot of potential, and I quite like the first half. But the second half tends to focus too much on Gardiana’s hippy-dippy peace movement and the Bolar Federation’s endless supply of ugly, two-dimensional characters and dull ship designs.

Tim’s Closing Notes

While I don’t disagree with any of Arthur’s misgivings as laid out above, it’s always worth balancing them out with some positives. Should Series 3 have been better? Absolutely. Was it the worst thing ever made? Not even close.

As we learned in the “Making of Yamato III” coverage, the project began with a massive amount of ambition. A year’s worth of episodes is a big deal, and it takes a lot of story to fill up that time. We know from the generous amount of plot information in various publications that a lot more action and intrigue was planned, and ample time given to each new character (not unlike the episodes in Series 1 and 2 that spotlighted minor crew members like Sparks or Royster). All that material was fuel for The Bolar Wars Extended, so it’s not lost for good.

From a pure animation standpoint, it was an interesting move to make each episode its own “independent production,” with a single director rather than a supervising director managing all of it (as Noboru Ishiguro did for Series 1 and 2). There was an overall series director, Eiichi Yamamoto, who kept his hand on the wheel from start to finish. But the episodic directors were given much more latitude than usual, which is why the style changes frequently. This was an experiment that breathed life into the series in a different way and brought a variety of techniques to the table.

This production model occasionally popped up in other anime of the early 80s, back when the industry was still in rapid expansion and the need for talent was at an all-time high; studios had to improvise with moves such as this, and many superstars were born in the trenches.

We ought to take a moment and wonder what might have resulted if the ratings hadn’t moved the Yomiuri network to cut the series in half, and if there actually was a 50-episode story in the Space Battleship Yamato saga. Yamato III would have made up half the total TV episodes (rather than a third) and a little over 40% of the complete saga. Successful ratings would have generated more books, model kits, toys, and other merchandising. Just about the only element that went unaffected by the cutback was music; a library capable of filling out a year’s worth of episodes did get recorded, a body of work larger than either of the previous two series. It took decades for it to all get a commercial release, an effort which culminated with the Sound Almanac CD series in 2013.

Something else worth thinking about is whether or not a movie called Final Yamato would have followed a 50-episode series. The answer to this is probably yes; Yoshinobu Nishizaki first made mention of a concluding feature film before Yamato III went on the air. There’s no telling if it would have been the same movie, though. It was dissatisfaction with his inability to fully tell the Yamato III story that drove Nishizaki to get Final Yamato going. If that dissatisfaction wasn’t there, his motivation would have come from something else.

In the end, all this is academic and unanswerable, but Yamato III‘s fate seems to be forever bound to “what ifs.” Sort of like what happened to Series 1 but without the subsequent rendezvous with destiny. I still remember the rush of indignance I felt when I first learned about the fate of Series 3. It seemed like a supreme injustice. Anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa once told me a theory that fits well into this; Yamato‘s enormous energy flows into its fans, and the fans feel compelled to expend that energy into other things. That’s what led to the founding of anime fandom when Series 1 ended prematurely. There was enough energy in that to spread all the way around the world.

Would I have liked Yamato III to end differently? My work on The Bolar Wars Extended answers that question. Would we have been better off without Yamato III? Absolutely not. Even lost potential still allows us to appreciate true potential. Even now, if I see some new spinoff product with “Yamato III” on it, it gives me a greater rush of excitement than something derived from another story. To me, it’s proof that someone else felt what I felt. More than thirty years have passed, but that Yamato energy is still flowing.

The End

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