Thursday, August 8, 2013

How John Howard destroyed civilisation as we know it.

Ok so I admit the headline is mostly hyperbolic in nature, but I was via the Australian Skeptics Facebook page quite shocked to hear the nature of one of the "fatty" programs that the Howard Government saved us tax payers from in the quest for their moronic budget surplus.
In 1996 John Howard defunded Australia's program to track Near Earth Objects, ie space rocks like comets and asteroids, in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. This is a totally sci-fi nerdy concern I know, but if the previous three posts prove anything, I'm a bit of a sci-fi nerd. (Also I am aware of the irony of writing a post about the dangers of asteroids after talking about Yamato so much)
Phillip Adams wrote a great piece about this in April; and I have to echo his sentiments, if there is a danger to the public that a government can help prevent it is its absolute duty to do so. Especially seeing research like this is relatively cheap into totally budgetary terms.
This action, canning a "minor" scientific program to save a few $million is a symptom of what today causes large chunks of society to ignore the threat of anthropogenic climate change. It's not in their immediate fiscal interest to do anything so let's not bother shall we?
I'm waiting for the Asteroid deniers to step up to the plate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Be Forever Yamato: What I'm watching at the moment (part the final): Space Battleship Yamato (1974)

So like the Yamato we come to the end of my Space Battleship journey. (Except that Yamato 2199 still has four episodes to go, oh the waiting is killing me!) I chose to rewatch the original series in Japanese , a feat easily achieved via youtube. Yamato was the beginning of the now very famous Space opera genre of Anime and the return to the genre internationally in a televisual media. So what is Space Opera? Where did it come from?
Space Opera refers to a dramatic, adventure centric form of science fiction that existed in the Golden age of the early 20th century. It was a growth of the "planetary romance" genre that Edgar Rice Burroughs made famous with his Barsoom series and is often separated from this style by critics. (Planetary Romance eventually grew into what we identify as modern fantasy writing) After the 1920s it became a term used to label "bad" Sci-fi. (As opposed to Hard Sci-fi); and was often derided due its close thematic relationship with so called Horse Operas (Westerns) and Naval Romance novels. The 1970s saw the genre return, spurred on by Brain Aldiss's "Space Opera" (1974) it then came to dominate upon the release of Star Wars in 1977.
Also in 1974, across the pacific from where our western genre ideas are largely formed, Space Opera was being borne anew on the screen at the hands of Leiji Matsomoto and Nobuoru Ishiguro. Japanese animated series and Manga largely gravitated towards a few specific genres before Yamato; Super hero, Comedy, Childrens characters and Sport. The Sci-Fi that was being created in the animation and Manga houses of Japan were largely through the lens of super hero comics. (Gatchaman, Mazinger Z, Lupin II) Yamato represented a progression from this style of storytelling, reminiscent of the Naval inspired sci-fi of the 1920s.(If Matsomoto and Ishiguro were aware of such works)Rather than a person or group that transform into our hero (or who are unique heroic figures like Lupin), Yamato's "hero" is a ship and its crew; professional sailors. Yamato itself follows the tradition of "super weapons"in Japanese sci-fi but it is not concealed by any sort of secret identity, its crew are not everyday people who become heroes when the time is needed; no they are full time military men and women (well woman). Likewise the villians are not demons or monsters, they are another military force who have imperious designs on our Earth. Like many super weapons, Yamato starts the series concealed under the Earth, disguised; but once the ship rises it stays risen. Yamato does not return to the Earth awaiting next week's adventure.
Yamato's tale is a journey, which separates it further from the anime of the time which primarily represented our heroes reacting against an external threat. No the Yamato's external threat cannot be resolved in a single episode or by a single firing of the eponymous wave motion gun. Being a Naval drama essentially the battles the ship experiences are skirmishes; part of a greater war. Space Battleship Yamato is truly a lovenote to Japan's short but lost Naval tradition; there is even a short scene (not included in Star Blazers from memory) talking about the history of the Space Battleship's namesake. At the conclusion of this scene the narrator laments "the end of the age of the battleship and the birth of the age of the aircraft" that the original Yamato's sinking represented. Japanese nationalism was part of the reason behind the pacing and conceptual changes that Star Blazers underwent when it was transliterated for an American audience. The nationalism isn't particularly intense but it is there, hand in hand with Japan's post war pacifism. (There is for example a lament of war in the final episodes; Kodai lamenting the waste and stupidity of it all after Deslock devastates Gamilias trying to destroy Yamato.) Ultimately the Yamato is the main character of the series,her human crew are just lenses we the audience watch and relate to events through. The ending narration almost always talks about the ship, not the crew commanding Yamato to persevere for the good of mankind. "Rise Yamato, Rise!" is a classic line of narrated dialogue from the preview for the next episode, the cliff hanger being the ship had just been "shot down" and crashed under the ice of Pluto. The instruction is to the ship and crew and one entity, there is no "can the crew persevere?" or "Will Captain Otika come up with a plan?". No the narrator addresses the ship, and the ship alone with a command.
Yamato is an awesomely important series for a number of reasons, it is full of firsts that aren't obvious but when you start to look at history are quite ahead of their time. The depiction of space conflict as a proxy for Naval conflict has indeed been around since the 1920s, but Yamato takes a more directly allegorical tact. The earth space fleet is called the "Cosmo Navy" and its uniforms and language is distinctly naval. (Including calling destroyed ships "sunk") This allegory to Navy tactics gives us one of the first examples (possibly THE first, I can't find an older one) of the Space Fighter concept that is now central to space opera style fiction. Just think; Star Wars, Babylon 5, even Macross, the space fighter is front row center as a mainstay of the space opera. Before Yamato space ships tended to be rocket ships or hard sci-fi vehicles, there was little idea of capital class ships. Star Trek had some relationship with the Navy allegory, with the episode "Balance of Terror" being the best example. But while Trek had shuttle craft, they were little more than ferries to and from ships or planets, Trek did not introduce small craft designed for combat until Deep Space 9. The Space fighter is an integral part of ship conflict in Yamato, they fulfill the same role as aircraft do in Naval warfare. While smaller than a capital ship, the fighter is usually heavily armed and maneuverable, capable of sinking much larger ships and avoiding the guns of the capital ship. This brings the need to use fighters to defend against enemy fighters, which gives us dog fights which give us a healthy source of drama. Where would Sci-Fi be without this concept? George Lucas was referencing the same things as Yamato was in Star Wars, especially in the classic trench run scene. Even if he was unfamiliar with Yamato whilst working on Star Wars the same themes were playing in his mind.
As discussed last time Yamato gave us Deslock, the charismatic villain archetype that would be repeated in Anime to this day. It also continues the long tradition of robot characters in the form of Analyzer.
Minus the arms he does look familiar, a wheeled analysis robot...
In the new series Analyzer has quick become one of my favorite characters, he has a whole episode where he tries to teach humanity to a Gamilas android. He is more of a tool for the crew in the original, but less annoying than his Star Blazers "cute robot" post R2D2 version.
The biggest issue in the original series, fixed in spades in Yamato 2199 and the live action, is the female cast. There really isn't much of one outside of Yuki, who isn't much more than a love interest for Kodai. Starsha (the Queen of Iscander) is the other main female character of the series, but really little more than a goal than a fully formed character. This likely is more to do with the time it was written than anything else. (Japan still has more rigid gender roles than the west even today)

So I have completed my long journey to Iscandar 2 and a bit times (still waiting for the last 2199 movie to be released) and have enjoyed it each time. The new series is an amazing testament to the original as well as one that updates it without loosing the stories feel. Unlike so many reboots it hasn't been made more violent and darker in the hope of making it more adult; instead they have updated the visual style, added more depth to the writing and developed the universe more substantively. If you are a Sci-Fi fan it is worth a watch, if you are a fan of Space Opera and want to see one of the modern genres foundation elements; watch the original as well.

Till next time, Be forever Yamato.