Space Battleship Yamato 4: Be Forever Yamato

Of all the old anime I've watched, Space Battleship Yamato may be the one that has surprised me the most. The first film was creaky but vaguely watchable as it attempted to bring space opera to audiences fascinated by Star Wars. The second one, Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, was bad -- boring as all get out and layered with cheese. I didn't expect it to get any better. And yet it did. The New Voyage ignored the second film and wound up being reasonably enjoyable, ramping up the graphics a little and surpassing my limited expectations. I wound up at Be Forever Yamato not certain what I'd find. Would it be another step in the right direction, or would it falter and fail in a boatload of mediocrity? I'm as surprised as anyone to say that Be Forever Yamato is easily the best of the lot so far, with animation that is a significant improvement over its predecessors and a plotline that, with some notable exceptions, is focused and entertaining. It won't win over those who can't look at '80s anime without cringing, and it earns demerits for lazy storytelling and cheesy death scenes the series is infamous for. That said, it's a much easier watch than earlier entries in the canon.

As Be Forever Yamato begins, Earth is in serious trouble. The Dark Nebula galaxy, introduced in the last film, has finally decided that conquering the meddling earthlings is the best way to control the universe. In a sharp opening sequence, their forces overwhelm Earth's defense forces and plant a bomb capable of destroying human brain matter. The aliens offer surrender as an alternative. There's only one hope for the human race, and that's the crew of the Yamato, who escape quickly enough to get to the faithful battle cruiser that's been stashed away for safekeeping.

As the movie progresses, there are two plotlines interweaving...Kodai and crew, under the guidance of a new captain, make their way into enemy territory 400,000 light years away in hopes of destroying the bomb's trigger. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Kodai's fiancé Yuki finds herself under the watchful gaze of Alphon, an alien who saved her life. She wants to free the planet from its oppressors, but the only way she might be able to do that is to fall in love with Alphon.

Now when I say that Be Forever Yamato looks good, I mean that in the sense that it looks good for a thirty-year-old film made on a small budget with a very different aesthetic than today's sci-fi anime. The detail work, both at a character level and on the spaceships themselves, has gone up a big notch; though it still doesn't really look worthy of a theatrical presentation, those who've followed the series will appreciate the quality difference. The score, which often makes or breaks these films, is solid. There's also an interesting bit where the film switches aspect ratios when the Yamato finally reaches the Dark Nebula galaxy, expanding the picture considerably. The artistic side isn't perfect by anybody's grading scale, but I appreciated the effort.

Aesthetics aside, there are some unsurprising problems with Be Forever Yamato. The operatic dramatics are still in play. After virtually forty minutes of excitement, the show stops for eight minutes during back-to-back ballads. Bad guys are still introduced with subtitles because there's no time to introduce them properly (and they die off without us even knowing why we should care). The narrator tells us too much of what's going on, and the ending on a scale of cheesiness is pure limburger. These might surprise and alarm a newbie, but folks who've watched the other films are used to these conventions by now. Here, they are less annoying than similar yawn-inducing moments in the previous installments...but that's damning with faint praise.

But still, if you can get into the groove of this thing, it's darn fun. It's really amazing how having an A-plot and a B-plot move things along. There's a whole lot of streamlining, and it makes this film almost feel like a regular movie. Gone are the tedious bits where the audience was supposed to find crewmen following orders interesting and exhilarating. Instead, the pathos and tension are ramped up, and for the most part, it works. Thrilling by modern standards? Heck no. But as an entertainment from a bygone era, I liked it.

What helped was seeing it through the eyes of my six-year-old son. Blissfully unaware that the animation was out-of-date and the storyline pretty standard boilerplate sci-fi, he was engaged by the massive space battles and heroic figures. He reads well but couldn't keep up with all the subtitles, but with my co-narration, he understood what was going on. (He even figured out a key twist in the storyline before his old man did!) And perhaps that's the best way to see this series...through the eyes of naïvety, without the jadedness of modern conventions. Maybe it's impossible to appreciate the series the way the Japanese did thirty years ago, but somehow, my son's wonder at it all makes me think he gets it.

With new Yamato movies on the way, both live-action and animated, some folks might be interested to see where things started. Unlike The Wrath of Khan or Terminator or Alien, these do not stand up over time, at least in terms of narrative expectations. But Be Forever Yamato is certainly the best of the films so far, and those who want to see what the fuss was about could do worse than to start here.

Space Battleship Yamato 4: Be Forever Yamato -- mild profanity, violence -- B