Leiji Matsumoto has been drawing comics and animated features forever, and it makes sense that when Japanese animation was first distributed in Italy, one of Matsumoto’s works was at the forefront of the anime invasion. Space Pirate Captain Harlock hit my country about six weeks before my 12th birthday, and instantly became my favorite Japanese cartoon. No giant robots stomping over the suburbs of Tokyo, but good old fashioned space opera – and it was just what the doctor ordered for a kid that had spent two years reading Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton. I mean, come on… space pirate? Where do I sign up?
Only much later would I find out that Matsumoto had been, about ten years before, the illustrator for both the Northwest Smith stories and the Jirel of Joiry stories by C.L. Moore, when they had first been published in Japan. Impeccable pulp space opera credentials, that Matsumoto put to goo use not only in Harlock, but also in other works, and of course in Space Battleship Yamato, from 1974, a military sf/space opera that was the answer to the prayers of anyone grown up (not much, in fact) with The Legion of Space, and that felt trapped in a world in which there was not enough SF on the telly, nor in the bookstores.
Yamato‘s set-up is as classic as they come – the alien Gamilas attack the Earth with orbital weapons (basically dropping asteroids from the Oort Clouds), and only one ship survives to answer the offer for help from a far-away trans-galactic civilization. The clock is ticking and space is full of threats. And so you get space battles, strange planets, the vast blackness of the cosmos, and a space fleet that provides men with tunics and pants and the only woman on board with a skin-tight jumpsuit. As I said, classic.
In the last few nights I have been enjoying Space Battleship Yamato 2199, the 2012 reboot/remake of the series I caught on the TV when I was maybe 13. And I must say that I am impressed.
The set-up is still the same, and we are still deep into the realm of pulp space opera, with vast fleets being thrashed and whole planets being blown up. The Earth is still being bombarded from the Oort Clouds and we still have only one spaceship to go all the way to the Magellan Clouds and back, and the clock is ticking.
But things have changed, and it’s not just a matter of computer-assisted animation and better artwork.
While the Gamilas are still Alien Space Nazis down to the uniforms and the names (Redof Hiss? Really?), the labor camps and the racism/specism, the series stacks quite a few levels of gray over the original black-and-white morality – and yes, just like Han Solo, Earth shot first.
The science has been updated, so that we now get striking visuals based on the latest Hubble and space probes photos, and the technobabble has expanded to include Hawking’s black hole theories, wormholes, concerns about artificial intelligence and other details that make sure the series “sounds right” to modern viewers.
The fleet still issues skin-tight jumpsuits for women and tunic and pants for men, but the number of women on board of the Yamato has increased, and some of them even have something to do apart from relying what the computer says.
And we also get a lot of references to other Matsumoto works, including Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. And more – there’s an alien species of elfin women that’s known as “the Jirels”. Well played, Matsumoto-sensei.
I’m watching Yamato 2199 in part because I’m getting old and I’m missing my younger days (to quote the poet), and in part because there are moments in a man’s life (and, I am sure, also in a woman’s life) when what you’d really like to do would be to fire all three main gun turrets at the enemy and then order “Stay on course! Ram them!”
This is pulp space opera – ships carry unlimited ammo, you can dodge plasma beams, and all species in two galaxies share a common background and DNA structure. Our heroes odds are always ridiculous, and they always make it and Earthlings can be primitive bozos, but they have that little something that makes them special. But the way the characters and the single episodes are written is a little course in how to keep your narrative on track while giving room to all the (many!) characters to have their story, their background, their resolution. It all boils down, in the end, to putting on the page – or the screen – characters that, while stereotypical (the ace pilot, the cold scientist, the old captain, the alien space nazi…), still come alive and have depth. Not much, not often, but enough to capture the viewer. It’s fine with me.
Or maybe, who knows, it’s just that I am getting old.