The mighty super battleship, armed with super-powerful weapons, single-handedly takes on an armada of enemy ships and warplanes. Aboard the (none other than) Yamato is a crew of volunteers on a suicide mission with a slim chance of success. This is not a historical chronicle of 1945, but a recap of the plot of a Japanese sci-fi saga. The action takes place in 2199, whereas the battleship Yamato travels the infinite depths of space. How did this story become a classic of world fiction?
World War II, which had a disastrous impact on Japan and brought about revolutionary changes to society, quickly became a landmark for Japanese culture in the postwar years. This sophisticated milestone still inspires creative people, and over the past decades has enjoyed many interpretations – from poignant anti-war manifestos to blatantly commercial warploitation thrillers. The way motifs of the war tragedy have been construed in Japanese fiction – at times in most unexpected forms – is of particular interest.
Today we focus on one of the first manifestations of the World War II theme in Japanese fiction, which has gained lasting worldwide fame and profound everlasting love of the public – the sci-fi saga Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū Senkan Yamato) by the artist, screenwriter and director Leiji Matsumoto. The first successful Japanese space opera, one of the first anime series to become famous outside of Japan, an acclaimed modern classic – this phenomenal epic calls for a scrutiny.
Birth of a legend
The artist and screenwriter Leiji Matsumoto (born in 1938) is one who breathed life in the battleship. A pioneer and grand master of Japanese fiction, he belonged to the first generation of mangakas who came to work for the industry in the 1950s. A sincere interest in military history, mainly the events of World War II, can be seen in his early pieces, although this side of Matsumoto’s creative work is only known to the foreign audience by its 1993 mini-series Cockpit, an adaptation of three manga episodes centered on WWII. Unfortunately, Matsumoto’s military history comic books were never translated from Japanese.
In 1973, producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki invited Matsumoto to participate in a new project to create a sci-fi anime series in the space opera format. Remarkably, an entire team of young and ambitious animation professionals was put together. Matsumoto, Nishizaki and director Noboru Ishiguro belonged to the same generation, born in the late 1930s. The fruit of their labors (animated at Group TAC studios) was the series Space Battleship Yamato, with its 26 episodes aired on Yomiuri TV from October 1974 to March 1975.
Matsumoto, Nishizaki and their associates created an unusual and in many ways revolutionary space opera of truly epic proportions that was unprecedented for Japan. The active use of themes and images of World War II, which were in no way disguised by the authors, and were understandable to viewers without any additional commentary, became a characteristic feature of Space Battleship Yamato. This applied to both the military and adventure lines, and the ideological fleshing-out of the series. The popular Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes:
“Nishizaki imbued his series with powerful allegorical (and in the case of the titular vessel, not-so-allegorical) resonances of Japan's wartime experience and recovery, even to the extent of some elements left deliberately unfinished.”
If we were to recount the plot of the first series of the saga very briefly, it is roughly as follows. In the year 2199, Earth is attacked by the powerful and aggressive alien empire of Gamilas. The Earth’s military and space forces are defeated, and Japan is left with humanity’s last hope. A super powerful space battleship is built in the hull of the super battleship Yamato, sunk in 1945 (which also gives the spaceship its name). The brief prologue at the beginning of the series recounts the ship’s death. With a crew of Japanese volunteers led by the elderly captain Juzo Okita and his young assistant Susumu Kodai, the spaceship Yamato embarks on a long and dangerous campaign to save Earth. To many, this mission seems hopeless and suicidal.
The Path to Fame
The series of 1974–1975 was an incredible success: it immediately became a hit with the Japanese public and turned into a giant franchise. It would be no exaggeration to say that the space battleship Yamato became a symbol of an entire decade. Two more seasons of the series were released in 1978 and 1980, and five animated features were produced between 1977 and 1983. Interestingly, the epic seems to be missing a single author and inspirer. The project is traditionally considered the creation of Leiji Matsumoto, but he himself denied any sole authorship possibility:
«To be precise, Nishizaki was in charge of planning and picking the team, but when it comes to those involved in making the story, that’s a complicated question. You could say it was created by a committee. As far as I remember, I outlined most of the script and ideas for individual episodes, including the entourage and details of the battle scenes. I didn’t generate ideas at random, though, because it was a team effort.”
In addition to anime, manga, music albums, numerous souvenirs and accessories were produced during the years when the original Space Battleship Yamato epic was aired. The saga became one of the first successful anime franchises in the modern sense of the word. However, the authors were unwilling to exploit the theme mindlessly, and the 1983 picture was released as the finale of the entire story. A minor spoiler: the space battleship Yamato perished, but the legend of it has survived. Over the decades that followed, the saga had a reputation as a great classic of Japanese animation.
The contribution that Space Battleship Yamato made to the development and popularization of anime was literally enormous. It could have been the first Japanese sci-fi franchise to become more or less fully known to the general public outside of Japan. From 1979 to 1984, an American adaptation of the three seasons of the original series, Star Blazers, was aired in the United States, a true breakthrough for anime in Western pop culture. Both in Japan and in the West, the adventures of the Yamato crew played a huge role in popularizing anime, transforming it from “cartoons for kids” into a hobby for young and even adult audiences.
Interest in the space battleship was rekindled in recent years. In 2010, a full-length feature film was released, inspired by the plot of the first season of the original series. This picture with vivid special effects and a decent budget was well received in both Japan and beyond and generated great interest among the public. In 2012, the franchise was reset as a contemporary anime series with high-quality graphics. In later years, the Yamato 2199 series was released (a remake of the first season of the original), followed by two movies, and the second season of the Yamato 2202 series is currently aired. Xebec, a division of Production I.G., is the studio responsible for the project.
Japanese and international audiences were thrilled to see the remake of the original Space Battleship Yamato, although it was a product of a new generation of writers, rather than the creators of the original anime (suffice it to say that the producer of the first Space Battleship Yamato television series Nishizaki passed away in 2010). The new series and feature films are as commercially successful as their classic predecessors were in their time. Their undoubted merits include sincere respect and attention to the details of the saga and the desire to preserve the main developments and characters. At the same time, there is much in the remakes that is focused on the tastes and preferences of contemporary audiences. Specifically, female characters tend to play a much more noticeable role – the fair sex represents a significant portion of the Yamato crew, although the original series featured only one girl named Yuki Mori.
From the bottom of the ocean into space
The fate of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war years was a huge influence on the original series. The obvious and undisguised use of the Flagship of the Combined Fleet and the national pride of the Japanese, IJN Yamato, speaks for itself. Other ships with “talking” names also play an important role in the plot, e.g. the brother of the main protagonist commands the destroyer Yukikaze.
Space battles in both the original anime series and its remakes clearly refer to the naval battles of World War II, at times reaching almost direct analogies. The adventures of the space Yamato regularly repeat the situation, in which the space battleship, just as its historic prototype, is subjected to massive strikes by enemy spacecraft. Moreover, the machines depicted in the anime are sci-fi analogues of dive bombers and torpedo carriers. The Yamato has a fighter wing armed with a space version of the Zero fighter.
The less obvious use of the World War II themes, especially evident in the original series and features of the 1970s (although its traces can be found in the modern remake), is also notable. The protagonists of the saga are known for their sacrificial heroism that is typical of traditional Japanese morality and was demonstrated on numerous occasions during the war years. The Yamato space campaign itself, the backbone of the original story, looks like a suicide mission. Throughout the series and films, its heroes repeatedly find themselves in situations where they have to choose between life and death – and they sacrifice themselves without much hesitation. Air ramming, officers dying along with their ships, suicide bombers covering their combat friends – these images look quite unexpected in a seemingly entertaining adventure fiction.
Just as curious is the image of the enemy and the relationship with it. To say the least, the relations between the earthlings (primarily the Japanese Yamato crew) and the Gamilans resemble that of Japan and the United States during and after World War II. Humans and aliens initially feel nothing but mutual hatred and contempt, but gradually discover each other and learn that each side has its own reasons for waging the war. As the plot progresses, former sworn enemies become friends and allies, and this friendship is not based on “indiscriminate forgiveness”, but on their awareness of common interests and a mutual desire to bid farewell to their grievances.
While there are some similarities between Gamilas and the United States (particularly obvious in the anime of the 1970s), it is impossible to neglect the fact that the image of the galactic empire was influenced to an even greater extent by Nazi Germany. The analogies are direct and obvious: originally Gamilas is an aggressive, totalitarian militaristic state obsessed with expansion and domination. The empire is ruled solely by a dictator with the German-sounding name Abert Dessler, and other generals, admirals, and politicians also have surnames like Dommel, Dietz, etc. Gamilas’s similarity to the Third Reich at the level of aesthetics, political and social relations is particularly highlighted in the new generation of anime of the 2010s.
Memorial to the distant war
However, World War II is reflected in Space Battleship Yamato on a much more serious level as well. Speaking of certain historical analogies that the authors of the epic allude to one way or another, we should pay heed to the emotional background of the events, perfectly noticeable in the TV series and movies of the 1970s. A searching viewer can’t help but notice that the space opera quite obviously transmits the views and beliefs of Japanese survivors of the catastrophe of the 1940s.
Over and over again, the series and films of the original Space Battleship Yamato raise the themes of military failure and defeat, heavy losses, atrocities and the fundamental pointlessness of war, as well as the importance of peace and justice. The heroes (both earthlings and aliens) are forced to return to the ruins and try to start life anew, to celebrate the memory of their dead, to seek pathways towards mutual understanding and reconciliation. The saga shows a serious and dramatic tone, at times communicating outright pacifist ideas.
After watching the original Yamato of the 1970s, the author of this article has had a strong impression that such a story could only have been told by the Japanese of the generation that survived World War II and the occupation. It goes without saying that the emotional intensity of the new generation of the saga, which appeared at the beginning of the 21st century, is not so strong and not so clearly embraces the past. However, the new authors have maintained the traditions of the original: in addition to incredible space adventures, the remake has room for touching and even poignant themes.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that Battleship Yamato is one of the most interesting phenomena of contemporary mass culture – not only in Japan, but also in the world. The fantastic saga has become a real marvel that has won the love of audiences around the globe. Hideaki Anno, one of the most famous contemporary anime directors, the creator of another cult sci-fi epic Evangelion, described his first encounter with Battleship Yamato in the following terms:
“I was an eighth-grader. I was already a fan of battleships, but when I saw the anime it was unprecedented. I was fascinated just by the opening title. It was something adults would not be embarrassed to watch. I did ‘missionary work’ for Yamato at my school. I drew my own poster and put it up on the campus to spread the word!”
Equally remarkable is the renaissance of the Space Battleship Yamato franchise in recent years. The modern series and films have managed to capture the overall spirit of the source, and the state-of-the-art graphics combined with time-honored characters and storylines have made it a huge success with a wide audience. The proud flight of the revived space Yamato started decades ago and is still far from its conclusion.