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In 2199, the evil emperor Desslar (Desslock) orders the destruction of Earth. Radiation bombs from his planet Gamilas (Gamilon) have devastated the planet's surface and will make it uninhabitable within a year. Enemy cruisers have Earth under heavy surveillance so there's no chance to build a starship to fight back or escape. But the radiation that has dried up the oceans has exposed many old hulks, including the 250-year-old wreck of the WWII battleship Yamato (Argo). Tunneling under the surface, the authorities have secretly built a starship within the old hull. When Queen Starsha from the distant world of Iscandar offers Earth a device that can rid them of the deadly radiation if they'll just send a ship to fetch it, Captain Okita (Avatar) and a handpicked crew set out on the hazardous journey in the reborn Yamato. Young pilot Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildstar) has a grudge against the captain, who survived the battle that claimed Kodai's beloved older brother, Mamoru (Alex), but as time goes on, Kodai and the whole crew come to see the captain as a heroic father-figure whose responsibility to do everything in his power to save Earth is a heavy burden.
Despite looking faintly ridiculous to modern eyes, Space Battleship Yamato is one of the watersheds in anime history. A Japanese respray of Star Trek, it replaces pioneer exploration (or gunboat diplomacy) with oblique references to WWII-a desperate suicide mission, hounded by enemy vessels in red, white, and blue. The titular ship itself is the most obvious-at the time the greatest battleship ever built, it was sunk during a one-way mission to hold off the U.S. attack on Okinawa in 1945. Naval and aerial battle sequences are clumsily transposed to a space setting: ships "list" when holed in the hull and fighters are shot "down," although in space there isn't supposed to be a "down." Beyond the risible pseudophysics, however, SBY contained a supremely strong story line. SBY changed the way TV programmers thought about SF; previously it had been supposed that only very young audiences watched TV anime, and so there was no point in screening anything but giant-robot and sentai shows. The influence of the original series on a whole generation of Japanese animators is incredible, and it resulted in homages and cameos for the ship in many anime works. The green-skinned aliens seem to have inspired the design of the Zentraedi in Macross, while the teacher-pupil relationship of Okita and Kodai, born out of the captain's guilt over the loss of the pilot's close relation, never had a better reprise than in Gunbuster, where Coach Ota played the captain role to the full, even to the extent of dying before the end.
The show was the brainchild of writer Eiichi Yamamoto and Thundersub-producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who poached many staff from his former employers Mushi Pro. It also features heavy involvement from Captain Harlock-creator Matsumoto, who drew many of the initial designs and also the spin-off manga. The show lived out a lukewarm and unremarkable initial run of 26 episodes, but in 1977 the advent of Star Wars rejuvenated network interest in sci-fi. The first movie, SBY (1977), is a compilation of the first TV series that gained a new lease on life abroad as Space Cruiser, with the Gamilas hordes renamed the Gorgons. Back in Japan, Tomoharu Katsumata's movie Farewell to SBY: In the Name of Love (Saraba Uchusenkan Yamato: Ai no Senshitachi, aka SBY: Warriors of Love, 1978) seemed intended as the last word on the series, which ended with the Yamato destroyed, along with most of the main characters. Plainly, this would not be very useful for prolonging the franchise, leading to the same year's SBY 2 TV series, which retold the events of the movie, but with a more open-ended finish that didn't kill everyone off. Earth's new age of peace is disrupted in 2201 by Emperor Zorder's Comet Empire. This was soon followed by Takeshi Shirato's SBY: The New Voyage (1979, USY: Aratanaru Tabitachi), a 95-minute TV special broadcast on Fuji TV, in which the Yamato has the chance to come to the aid of Earth's savior Queen Starsha when she suffers attacks by the Black Star Cluster Empire. The New Voyage was shown in 1981 in theaters on a double bill with the next genuine movie edition, Katsu-mata's Be Forever Yamato (1980, Yamato yo Towa ni), featuring Kodai and a crew that includes Starsha and Mamoru's daughter, Sasha, defeating the invading forces of commander Kazan of the Dark Empire.
However, SBY's reissue as Space Cruiser was by no means the last of its English-language incarnations. The series made it to American TV screens as Star Blazers (1979). Claster Studios had acquired the first two series with its sights on marketing tie-ins for its toy division, Hasbro. Some changes were made for the U.S. market, notably to character names. Comic relief robot Analyzer and cyborg mechanic Sandor had been created well in advance of George Lucas's knockabout robot duo in Star Wars, but Analyzer was named IQ-9 in imitation of C-3PO. Some changes were made to cushion U.S. sensibilities; violence was toned down, and Dr. Sado's copious drinking became nonalcoholic. Despite an early lukewarm reception, American anime fans, as passionately loyal as their Japanese counterparts to the show they loved, began to screen episodes in convention video rooms. Its classic status on both sides of the Pacific was secured by fan interest and activity, to the extent where the full series and all five movies are still selling on video in the U.S. and Japan.
In 1980, a third Japanese TV series (also brought to the U.S.) moved the action further forward again to the year 2205, when new danger appeared in the Bolar Wars. During a battle between Galman Gamilas and the Bolar Commonwealth, a stray missile flies into the sun and renders it unstable. With only a year before the sun explodes, Kodai must restaff the Yamato with a crew fresh out of the academy and find a new Earth for the human race. In fact, by the end, the sun's stability is restored, leaving the grande finale of the Yamato's adventures to Takeshi Shirato's movie release Final Yamato (1983, USY: Kanketsu). For this conclusion, Okita (returned from the dead as an admiral) takes command of the ship in 2203 to defend Earth from Lugarl, priest-king of Dengil, a planet destroyed by a near-miss with the rogue planet Aquarius. The Aquarians are descendants of an advanced race that fled Earth during Noah's flood, and now they want to come home. The Yamato saves the galaxy once again, then sinks into the watery grave from which it was raised at the very beginning of the saga, there to remain until Blade Runner-futurist Syd Mead resurrected it in his much-trumpeted designs for the video series Yamato 2520 (1995). Top-heavy with directors (Shirato, Nishizaki, and Shigenori Kageyama) and adding a stellar design team to rework Matsumoto and Kitazume's originals, this relaunch of the old ship failed to fly. It looks pretty, but the repetition of the teens-save-Earth concept lacks the passion and conviction of the old series. Sometimes the latest fashion just can't compete with the classics.
In recent years, the story has remained in the headlines largely through the acrimonious court battle that has raged between the two men claiming to be its creators. This seems to stem from their conflicting ideas of who was responsible for what in the original, with producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki claiming that the series was his idea, and artist Leiji Matsumoto counter-claiming that while the extant TV versions may belong to Nishizaki, it is he who has the right to make his own new versions.