I don’t really have any personal experience with Space Battleship Yamato, but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge its influence. The original show came out in the mid-70s, and is credited for at least partially heralding a new anime boom, where shows specifically aimed at children were now joined by dramatic, long-form sci-fi epics courting an older audience. Its true influence might be somewhat disputed (Jonathan Clements, for example, theorizes its influence is so heralded partially because it happened to be in the right genre space to catch the eye of people writing the anime history books, a very reasonable critique), but it’s undeniable that many future creators were inspired by the adventures of the Yamato. Even Hideaki Anno states that the original Space Battleship Yamato is his favorite show, and the reason he initially pursued anime.
As someone who’s only made infrequent trips into anime’s history, the immediate context of Space Battleship Yamato is somewhat lost on me. But it’s abundantly clear in the choices of Yamato 2199 that the show is echoing a bygone era both in terms of style and storytelling. Yamato 2199 emerges in a medium that has already absorbed the lessons of its predecessor, and continued that conversation in all manner of ways. Anime and culture at large are very different from when Space Battleship Yamato arrived, but stories are stories, and some things never change.
Yamato 2199’s visual aesthetic reflects its status as a strange hybrid of old and new. The character designs are crisp and distinctive, each of them bearing differing degrees of reverence for Leiji Matsumoto’s original visual style. Matsumoto tends to draw three kinds of characters – wispy, beautiful women, firm, upright men, and little dwarf-people. All three types are represented here, but it’s the women who seem most beholden to Matsumoto’s classic ideal of beauty, while the show’s obvious young protagonist has a design that seems more like a modern lead. This seems fitting for his assumed role in the show; he’s the boy seeking his destiny, not the man who’s already assumed the warrior’s mantle.
In contrast to the show’s more retro character designs, all the combat here relies on modern CG. The CG is fortunately quite high quality; it’s limited to well-designed ships, and even the explosions have a sense of visual personality to them. The motions of the ships seems awkward, but that’s intentional – all of the space combat here is framed not as actual space combat, but as the collision of boats on an open scene. From the ornately detailed designs to the constant seafaring jargon, it’s clear a very specific type of fanservice is one of this show’s prime appeals.
It’s frankly difficult for me to engage with this show without addressing its assumptions in terms of audience appeal. The sci-fi tech porn angle is just the easiest and most obvious one; it’s clear shows like this are aimed at boys who really like spaceships, and many shots are dedicated to lovingly depicting the various evocative designs of the ships involved. The appeal of spaceships and robots for their own sake can’t be overstated; many anime exist purely for the sake of the toys they can inspire, and if you’re not engaged with the theoretical glamor of warmachines for their own sake, a great deal of what these shows care about will be gibberish to you. Fans may say it’s more about the storytelling than the mechs, but it’s clear in their productions that even creators as theoretically pacifistic and anti-technology as Miyazaki find themselves seduced by whatever it is that makes nerdy guys love weapons of war.
And beyond the focus on the warmachines themselves, Yamato 2199 finds itself in the strange position of echoing anime’s early obsessions with masculinity, and with observing war in the context of national defeat. The Yamato was a World War II battlecruiser; her revival as a space-faring battleship could not be more of a charged gesture. Yamato 2199 treats space combat not as movements in three dimensional space, but as battles at sea; captains order their ships hard to starboard, and doomed crews chant sea shanties as they fly to their deaths. Interplanetary travel is conducted aboard ships that communicate through lantern-based morse code.
There’s violence in this combat, but also glory and bravado; war is framed not as shameful, but as dignified and even glamorous. In a time when Japan was grappling with a total loss of certainty, the pride and validation of embracing battle and even dying gloriously represented an enticing kind of escapism. War isn’t just a necessary evil, and death isn’t just senseless tragedy – absurdly, disturbingly, preposterously, there is something to cherish in the idea of war itself, and in coveting a hero’s death. Anime would eventually turn away from this masculine idealization of a lost certainty, as characters like Shinji Ikari paved the way for an era of interiority and self-doubt. But here in Yamato 2199, battle is conducted by men with thick and powerful beards, giving confident orders to crews that know exactly what they are supposed to do.
The show’s embracing of belligerent war ideals is so earnest and on-the-nose it’s almost more difficult to critique. This isn’t a show like GATE, where the ideal isn’t just masculinity, but overt military expansionism and the denial of foreign agency; this is a show where, in spite of the heroic ship being the Japanese Yamato, the heroes are fighting for THE FATE OF ALL MANKIND! Images of WWII combat and the fear of the bomb are contrasted against evil aliens and hoary tropes like the magical girl falling from the sky, lending everything a certain archetypal toothlessness. “Mamoru Kodai was a true man. A great man” says the grizzled captain, underlining the show’s masculine pride with a simplistic, almost endearing directness. The subtext of shows like this is certainly not harmless, but when the subtext is both also the overt text and so fairy-tale large, it’s hard to take much offense.
Plus, inescapable context aside, Space Battleship Yamato 2199’s first episode is also just a very engaging piece of scifi storytelling. The show opens with a desperate space battle, leads directly into the reveal of that mysterious dead woman, and ends with the earth under assault and the reveal of an ancient battlecruiser. The CG is implemented gracefully, and the non-CG is regularly beautiful. The show has a clear vitality in spite of its very archetypal storytelling, and though the only theme that’s emerged so far is “manly men being manly is cool,” I can’t imagine a show from five years ago will avoid engaging with the forty years of cultural dialogue since the original series, or that the enemy will remain “unknowable demons” forever. Yamato 2199 is as enjoyable as a show as it is interesting as a cultural artifact, and I’m sure it’ll only get more fun from here.
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