Hollywood has its flaws. Cookie-cutter scripts and commodification of art can often ruin beautiful things. But at least Hollywood gets the cinematography right and doesn’t usually suffer from the pandemic of awkward overacting rampant in Japanese mainstream cinema. 2011’s Space Battleship Yamato live action movie is anime-comes-alive, but in a bad way that constantly reminds you how stupid the world would be if everyone behaved like manga characters.
Still, it’s not a total disaster.
Space Battleship Yamato will be out in Singapore cinemas on 24 March, but I caught a preview screening of it a few days ago.
Although I do enjoy the classics of anime from time to time, Yamato has never been one of them. I also don’t care a single bit about soap actor and SMAP member Takuya Kimura. If you are a fan of either, I suspect that what I write in this review will not matter and you will watch the movie anyway.
But for the rest of us, there are a few things I want to talk about.
The general gist of the story is that some unknown alien race has turned Earth into a radioactive wasteland for unknown reasons and mankind has been driven into underground bunkers much like in Fallout 3.
Thoroughly beaten in space, the United Nations for Space Exploration (which apparently consists solely of Japan) pools all its remaining resources to construct the Space Battleship Yamato using warp technology provided by another unknown alien race. The ship sets off on a last-ditch voyage to retrieve radiation-scrubbing technology from the unknown alien benefactors in order to make Earth habitable again, but nobody mentions how anyone plans to deal with the hostile invaders who created the mess in the first place and who are still right there in the solar system ready to do it again if necessary. As a wise man once said, “Fuck it, we’ll do it live!”
And for unknown reasons, the design of the ship that is to be humanity’s last hope is based on a Japanese WW2 battleship that was overwhelmingly out-teched and sunk by US carrier-based torpedo bombers. Though, interestingly, there is a hole in the bow where the Japanese imperial seal would’ve been.
Okay, so the story has more holes than the moon, but I suppose that is not just expected but required of such a production.
Digital special effects in the movie are actually better than I had expected given the track record of the Japanese film industry, but the rest of it still bears an unfortunate sentai vibe. The bridge in particular, where it feels like most of the movie takes place in, wouldn’t look out of place in an Ultraman movie. This problem is further exuberated by Japanese cinema’s habit of filming entire movies from one single camera angle.
It feels like the producers blew the effects budget on a few scenes that account for maybe 1/100 of the movie because some of the special effects going on in the second half of the movie look downright comical.
I think it’s really weird how Japan, a country known for its anime and video game industries, still has difficulties producing industrial-grade special effects for its movies when New Zealand has Weta and ILM’s Singapore subsidiary worked on Ironman 2.
Yamato does take a page or two from Tinseltown’s playbook with some degree of success. There are few shots in the movie (the aforementioned budget busters) that evoke the kind of grandiose and awe big-budget US titles are very good at creating. You can actually see most of them in the trailer if you want to save some money.
The first quarter of the movie is easily the best part of the movie. This is where we are introduced to the post-apocalyptic Earth and a human race on the verge of extinction hiding beneath its surface. Children grow up in bunkers devoid of proper sanitation and hope. The hero of the story, played by Kimutaku, goes up to the surface in a ghetto hazmat suit to collect scraps for a living. The Yamato, humanity’s last hope, is unveiled.
All great moments in the movie, some of them are unintentionally poignant in light of recent events in Japan. The movie was right on the cusp of greatness and my cold cynical heart was ready to be moved.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the story that follows this fast-paced Hollywood-style introduction quickly degenerates into an endless series of mind-numbingly bland conversations between boring characters taking place in generic enclosed cabins. The existential threat facing humanity becomes tangential to the predictable interpersonal drama taking place between uninspired character stereotypes drifting around the bridge in various stages of comatose. It comes as a huge relief when many of these unbearable automatons are gradually killed off over the course of the movie.
My friend was sniggering at the corny dialogues throughout the movie, but the cheese gets so bad towards the end that even the more-reserved individuals in the theatre laughed aloud.
It’s a run-of-the-mill product of Japanese mainstream cinema with relatively better special effects and decent entertainment value. Imagine a Japanese take on Armageddon but replace every Hollywood trope with its equivalent Japanese idiosyncrasy. It even comes with its own Steven Tyler love ballad.
In my completely professional opinion as a person on the Internet, the best part of the movie is Meisa Kuroki in the role of Yuki Mori, the heroine. She brings the fictional concept of tsundere to life in all its meme-licious glory.