Remember Yamato

On Christmas, my older daughter surprised me with a copy of one of the myriad Space Battleship Yamato soundtrack albums. She found the Japanese import at a convention this past year. A search of Tim Eldred’s amazing Yamato fan site, OurStarBlazers.com, revealed that it was the 1995 release of the Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage Symphonic album.

As I’ve mentioned before, I collect soundtracks and love to play them while I write. They can help me find a mood or a tone while I’m writing certain scenes. Sometimes they just help me escape the mundane worries of the world while I try to get into a creative headspace. The TV series Space Battleship Yamato debuted in October 1974 in Japan and featured one of the most epic scores ever to appear in a space opera TV series. Here in America, John Williams’s amazing soundtrack for Star Wars set a standard for space adventure music. I’ve heard it speculated that George Lucas was inspired to have Williams create such an epic score because he’d seen it done with great success in Japan. Whether that speculation is true or not, I still consider the Yamato soundtracks to be among the gold standard of science fiction music.

Even though I have been a fan of Space Battleship Yamato since I first saw it on American TV circa 1978 or so, I haven’t seen every episode of the translated series, Star Blazers, or every movie. It doesn’t help that the original movies only had limited release in the United States. When they were released on DVD, they came out at a price I couldn’t readily afford. Space Battleship Yamato is noted for having a rousing opening song performed by Isao Sasaki. In the album for Space Battleship Yamato: The New Voyage, there’s a new opening song, also performed by Isao Sasaki, called “Remember Yamato.” The song is so distinctive, that I realized The New Voyage was one of the stories I missed.

A search of Amazon revealed that The New Voyage was still available on DVD and it was at a price I could now afford, so I sent away for it and finally had a chance to watch it. I knew the events of the story because I had friends who had described it to me during my high school years. Still, this was the first time I’d seen this particular story for myself. It’s quite an iconic chapter in the Yamato storyline. In short, it tells the story of how the Captain Kodai of the Yamato teamed up with Lord Dessler of the Gamilon Empire to attempt to save the planet of Dessler’s greatest love from an evil empire strip-mining her planet. If we were to put this in Star Wars terms, it would be like Luke Skywalker teaming up with Lord Vader after the Empire’s defeat to go fight evil industrialists. I’d definitely pay to see that!

It turns out the special features on this particular disc were assembled by none other than Tim Eldred, whose website helped me identify the soundtrack album, which in turn led me on a quest to find the movie. One of the special features is a translation of creator Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s liner notes for the album! At the end of the notes, he says, “Please enjoy the sound of this space opera and revive the vast anime-universe in your heart. I also hope you will create your own wonderful images which surpass mine.”

I’m delighted that I have been able to create some of my own space opera adventures in novel form which have been inspired by the music of Space Battleship Yamato and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Nishizaki for his creation. You can explore my work at my website http://www.davidleesummers.com

High Octane Racing

When I was a kid, cartoons about racing were a thing. Two cartoons of note were Speed Racer and Wacky Races. The former was the American translation of the anime Mach GoGoGo! which told the story of Go Mifune who entered races around the world in his car loaded up with gadgets, such as powerful pogo sticks that would propel the car over obstacles, rotary saws to just cut through obstacles, and special traction belts to allow the car to climb steep roads. Wacky Races was an American cartoon inspired by the 1965 film, The Great Race. It imagined a group of colorful characters racing around the world in equally colorful cars, often containing gadgets a bit like Go Mifune’s Mach 5. One of the racers, evil Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley would routinely try to thwart the other racers who included the beautiful Penelope Pitstop and inventor Pat Pending.

This past summer, I discovered that DC comics started a comics line that featured ramped-up versions of classic Hanna-Barbara cartoons. I wrote about Wacky Raceland, based on Wacky Races and Scooby Apocalypse based on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? redline-poster In Wacky Raceland, the racers drive their AI-enhanced cars through a post-apocalyptic wasteland under the watchful eye of a disembodied announcer who has promised some kind of reward. We still have Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop. In this new version, Muttley is semi-intelligent because of his own AI enhancements. Professor Pat Pending seems to have a set of secrets connected to the apocalypse. I’ve been following and enjoying the comic and I gather it ends with issue six in about a week. When my daughter read the first issue, she said the story reminded her of a racing anime—no, not Mach GoGoGo!—but a newer one called Redline.

I finally had the chance to watch Redline this past week. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s about racers competing on different tracks around the galaxy. The hero is Sweet JP who races a vintage yellow Mustang with an enhanced engine that gets a burst of speed by dropping nitro pellets into the fuel tank. His rival and love interest is Sonashee, known as “Cherry Boy Hunter”. She has an amphibious car armed with missiles. The movie opens with a race known as the “Yellowline.” Sweet JP’s mechanic is in deep with the mob and just as it looks like Sweet JP is going to win the race, the mechanic sets off a bomb in Sweet JP’s car, causing him to crash. Sonashee zooms past him and wins.

The next race is the titular Redline which is scheduled to be held on a heavily militarized planet where the racers are not welcome. Because some of the racers who qualified don’t want to risk their necks, Sweet JP is offered a spot in the race. The anime features some neat cars, some interesting and rugged settings, and great aliens. More than once, I was reminded of the pod-racing scenes in Star Wars but the art and voice acting in the anime conveyed more thrills.

One thing that made the movie Redline interesting is that in this modern era of CGI animation, it’s all hand-drawn. The movie is really beautiful to watch. The art style reminded me more of the European comic art you might find in a magazine like Heavy Metal than most anime. To be honest, the story itself wasn’t much to talk about. It’s a simple love story tied to the story of a race. Sweet JP and Sonashee are attracted to each other but are rivals. Sweet JP’s friends are connected to the mob adding complications. It’s the kind of stuff you may have seen in lots of other stories about races and competitions.

Despite the familiarity, there are some interesting science fictional elements added late in the story. The militarized planet has some creepy bioweapons up its sleeve plus the holographic imagery of their control center is well realized. Many of the aliens in the movie are also interesting and use the freedom of animation to take us beyond humans in suits.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Wacky Raceland comic resolves, but I’m especially grateful that the comic gave me an excuse to go back to the racing cartoons of my youth and discover the movie Redline.

Star Wars and Battle of the Planets

By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.

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As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.

Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.

Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.

Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.



Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.

Space Battleship Yamato

In 1978, I was still under the spell of Star Wars, the original Battlestar Galactica was on the air, and I was eagerly awaiting the first Star Trek movie. One day, TV station KTLA from Los Angeles showed a Japanese movie that held me spellbound. It was called Space Cruiser Yamato. It echoed many of the space operatic themes of those other shows, but upped the ante in many ways. Life on Earth had been bombed into near extinction by a race of malevolent aliens. To save it, a valiant crew embarked on an interstellar quest for help aboard the only spaceship available—a World War II warship converted into a star vessel with the help of alien technology. Many characters gave their lives to save others and there seemed a real chance Yamato would not succeed in its mission.

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This show was not the first anime I’d seen, but it was certainly the most dramatic and serious. I was hooked. A year later, I learned that the movie had been cut together from a TV series. The series debuted in the United States under the name Star Blazers. At first, I was disappointed. They changed the names of all the characters. They even changed the name of the ship. The Yamato was rechristened the Argo. It wasn’t until high school that I learned the names were changed for both the movie and the series by the American companies that dubbed them into English. A friend shared video tapes he’d purchased in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. That’s how I first met Captain Okita, Susumu Kodai, and Yuki Mori in their original forms. I didn’t understand all the words, but my friend narrated the show and I fell even further under its spell. That’s when I learned the proper name of the series: Space Battleship Yamato

There’s no doubt the show had an influence on my writing. Suki from The Pirates of Sufiro was an homage to Yuki Mori, the Yamato’s radar operator and nurse. It seems pretty obvious when I present the names side by side like this, but when Pirates was released, most Americans knew Yuki as Nova Forrester. Likewise, Space Battleship Yamato first made me consider how big a disaster humanity could survive and what it would take to stand up to that threat. Following that path led me to Heirs of the New Earth. That novel also includes a nod to Yamato’s Chief Engineer Tokugawa in the form of Chief Engineer Kimura who finds a way to launch the grounded pirate ship Legacy.

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I was delighted to discover that Toho Studios made a live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato back in 2010. Two weeks ago, I received my copy of the Blu Ray disk. The new movie is amazingly faithful to the source material. They did swap the genders of some key characters, but that was fine. One of my problems with the original Space Battleship Yamato is that the cast had too few women. Another interesting, and sad, choice was the death of a major character. Even so, the theme of personal sacrifice was important in Yamato, so I see this in keeping with the spirit of the original.

I’ve seen some on-line comments which suggest that the movie borrowed heavily from J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek and Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. There’s probably some truth to that, but close as the movie is to its source material, it seems just as fair to suggest those productions borrowed from Yamato in the first place. Among other things, I gather George Lucas was strongly influenced by the space dogfights of Space Battleship Yamato and R2-D2 bears more than a passing resemblance to Yamato’s robot, Analyzer. After all, Space Battleship Yamato first aired in 1974, a full three years before Star Wars.

I recently discovered that the first season of Space Battleship Yamato has been remade. The new version is called Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Information and a 13-minute trailer are available at starblazers.com. Unfortunately, it looks like each disk of the seven-disk limited edition set is retailing for $35 to $45 depending on vendor and format. That price is a little steep for my writer and astronomer income. I hope they’ll eventually release a mass-market edition at a lower price or release it to one of the streaming services so more of us can enjoy it. Even so, I’m delighted to see that after 40 years, Yamato is still traversing the heavens on its quest to save Earth.