Friday, September 19, 2014

Cosmo Ship Yamato, vol. 1 review

Leiji Matsumoto (1938-) presents a kind of a problem from the perspective of manga history. Many of the old-school artists (post-WW II) can sort of be clumped together as being either directly influenced by Osamu Tezuka, or coming from the kamishibai (paper theater) field.  We don't really see that here with Leiji, who spent his own money to go to Tokyo in the early-1950's and got his start primarily drawing girl's manga under his original name of Akira Matsumoto. His debut work, "Mitsubachi no Boken" ("A Bee's Adventure"), came out in 1954, in Manga Shonen. This is after the Tokiwa-Sou period, when key figures like Ishinomori, Fujio Fujiko, Fujio Akatsuka and Shinichi Suzuki had worked directly with Tezuka, and a little before kamishibai artists like Shigeru Mizuki came along. Eventually, more women entered the shojo manga market, and forced out many of the male artists. In 1965, Akira worked exclusively under the name "Leiji Matsumoto", but he wasn't really successful until debuting "Otoko Oidon" in 1971, in Shonen Magajin. According to the SF Encyclopedia article, Leiji also produced book illustrations for Japanese collections of the Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories by C L Moore. This brought him to the attention of producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who hired him as a concept artist for a planned TV anime project that eventually came out as "Uchu Senkan Yamato" in 1974 (renamed "Star Blazers" in the U.S., and heavily re-edited.)

According to one source, Nishizaki wanted Yamato to be a kind of Lord of the Flies in space, with a group of teenagers stuck on a generation space ship and quickly going after each other's throats. However, Leiji reworked the story, and began producing the manga of the same name, also in 1974. The two of them got into a prolonged legal battle over who owned what, and a court in 2002 ruled that the trademark and basic plot belonged to Nishizaki, but the characters and spaceship design were Leiji's. From this point, Leiji established himself as a space opera manga artist, with grand story arcs appearing in Captain Harlock (1977), Galaxy Express 999 (1977) and Queen Millennia (1980). He's very closely associated with both the Japanese train system, and the JAXA space program.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Uchu Senkan Yamato, vol. 1, by Leiji Matsumoto, Grade: B+
Because Yamato is available in English, there's not a lot of point to giving a full story summary here. Essentially, Earth has been under attack by an alien humanoid race called the Gamiras, who have bombarded the planet with asteroids, turning the surface into a desolate ruins. Most humans have retreated into underground cities, with a research center on Mars. Captain Okita is leading a desperate last attack against the Gamiras fleet in space, and his ship is the only one to make it back to Earth with survivors. At this point, a strange spaceship crashes on Mars, bearing a message capsule from the Queen of the planet Iscandar. She gives the Earthlings the plans for a new warp drive and cannon, and invites them to come visit in order to join forces against the Gamiras. Earth's scientists secretly rebuild the ruins of an ancient space warship, which Okita christens "Yamato". It's staffed with the two boys that found the message capsule - Kodai and Shima (Kodai's older brother was one of Okita's last remaining commanders until he engaged in a kamikaze attack on a Gamiras ship), the alcoholic doctor Sakezou Sado, Sado's pretty assistant Yuki Mori, and the robot Analyzer.

Iscandar offers the promise of something called the Cosmic Cleaner D, which would restore Earth's surface. So, Okita takes the Yamato out into deep space, where the crew has to survive various threats above and beyond attacks by the Gamiras fleet, headed by their leader, Lord Desler. For the most part, the Gamiras are like pre-WW II Germans - militaristic, but completely unable to outwit the wily Japanese good guys.

(All of the main cast prior to being asked to join the Yamato.)

For the most part, the story is pure camp. The ship goes into hyperspace for the first time, and we get to see dinosaurs roaming about there. If they get stuck in hyperspace, they'd be trapped forever like the Flying Dutchman. At another point, the ship loses power in a specific arm of the galaxy which is identified as "the Sea of Sargasso in space", although they're rescued by a pirate emissary from Iscandar that later reappears in his own series as Captain Harlock. In a subsequent chapter, the ship discovers a dark planet orbiting a Gamiras-made sun, and Okita destroys the base there by punching a hole through the star (smashing the control unit inside it).

(The Yamato makes it's maiden voyage into space, where it is threatened by a Gamiras super-missile.)

If we look at the original Star Trek TV series, it was simply a TV western transposed into space. Yamato is the same thing, but as a 1950's sea warfare movie. Most of the terminology comes from ocean-faring ships, as do some of the traps (such as a "space mine field"). The story is aimed at young Japanese boys, and ran in a magazine called Boken Oh (Adventure King) ('74-'75, three volumes), so you can't expect all that much from it.

(Lord Desler, watching the Yamato as it gets trapped too close to a star.)

The volume ends with the Yamato reaching Iscandar, where the crew discovers two things - one, that Iscandar is part of a double-planet system along with the Gamiras home planet; and two, that the Gamiras have trashed their own home, which is why they want to take over Earth. The Gamiras are defeated off-camera, Desler dies in a deus ex-machina trap, and Yamato brings the Cosmic Cleaner back to Earth, saving the planet. While the Yamato does have some casualties during the final battle with Desler, the reason Captain Okita dies before stepping foot on Earth again is that he'd succumbed to old age and injuries incurred from previous battles.

(The Yamato finds itself trapped in the Space Sargasso, with the ruins of other dead ships.)

Comments: If you want a good, hard SF series, Yamato isn't it. The science is laughable and the technology designs are dated. The crew determines that the dark planet's sun is artificial based on the fact that all the plant life on the planet is stunted, showing that the sun is something that was only recently added. Etc., etc. But, if you're interested in manga history, then Leiji Matsumoto is a key figure, ranking up there with Ishinomori and Tezuka himself. In this sense, Yamato represents a turning point in Japanese SF manga, opening up the realm of space operas on the order of Star Trek and Star Wars. If you want an introduction to Matsumoto's work, Yamato is a good start (especially since it ties to his other big series - Harlock and Galaxy Express 999, and 999 connects to Queen Millennia.)

(First appearance of Captain Harlock and his ship. Analyzer tells us that the entire crew are robots, and Harlock himself is over 50% cyborg. Captain Okita gives the impression of at least having an idea as to who Harlock really is. We're told that Yamato is Earth's first and only warp-driven ship, but that the Black Pirate's vessel has technology at least as good as the Yamato's. Kodai speculates that Harlock is really his older brother, somehow saved by Iscandar and rebuilt with machine parts.)

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