When I was 14 years old, my father’s job forced us to relocate the family from suburban Long Island to an underdeveloped community in Delaware. This was a massive change for me–not only was I coming into my first year of high school with a change of schools after three months, but I also lost my means of income, the paper routes that i had used to fund my comic book buying habit. We went from a location where there were two comic shops within easy biking distance, to say nothing of an array of 7-Elevens and candy and card stores that stocked comics, to an area in which practically nothing was within biking distance. This led to a bunch of changes in my comics buying habits–but the relocation also introduced me to something that would have a profound effect on my life and upbringing.
I was vaguely aware of STAR BLAZERS before the move. In New York, it had briefly aired in the mornings, typically around the time that I was heading off for school. But I hadn’t watched it. I didn’t understand the premise of the series, and I found the art style off-putting–especially as compared to the more Americanized look of BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, another Japanese import that I was quite a fan of. In Delaware, I found that STAR BLAZERS was running in the afternoons–and I still studiously avoided it for several weeks.
Eventually, one boring weekday, as I was flipping around the scant few channels, I caught most of an episode in bits and pieces. And it intrigued me enough to come back the following day. And from that point on, I was hooked.
It is no exaggeration to say that STAR BLAZERS changed the course of my life.
For those unfamiliar with the show, STAR BLAZERS was the Americanized adaptation of the Japanese SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO. In the year 2199, Earth is facing extinction. Enemy conquerors have bombarded the planet with radioactive projectiles, forcing a desperate humanity to seek refuge in great underground cities. But the Earth’s space fleet is no match for the technologically-superior enemy Gamilons–and, even worse, the radiation that covers the Earth is slowly seeping into the ground. In the first episode, it’s only about a year until all of humanity will become extinct.
But an offer of assistance comes from Queen Starsha of the far-off planet of Iscandar. She possesses a device that can remove the radiation and restore the planet. The only problem is that Iscandar is 148,000 light years away–far further out into space than mankind is capable of traveling. Starsha provides humanity with the plans for the Wave-Motion Engine, which will enable an Earth ship to make the long journey in time. Their resources depleted, the Earth command retrofits the hulk of the sunken WWII Japanese battleship Yamato, transforming it into a spaceship capable of making the journey.
From this point on, the series is essentially World War II in outer space, as the beleaguered Yamato (renamed the Argo in STAR BLAZERS so as to eliminate the nationalism) fights its way behind enemy lines in an attempt to get to Iscandar and return with the device before mankind is extinct. A running countdown at the end of each episode keeps us apprised as to how much time remains.
This description really only scratches the surface of why STAR BLAZERS was such a revelation. The short documentary piece I’ve embedded above is far more complete–and while I don’t agree 100% with everything they express in it, they do get the essence of the thing across.
STAR BLAZERS had a bunch of things going for it: It was a serialized storyline, in an era where such programs were rare. You couldn’t watch the episodes in any random order, they told a single progressing story (Well, two over the course of the original 52 episodes.) It had drama, again in an era where most other cartoons had been stripped of anything resembling conflict. It had outstanding music–the choice to leave the Japanese soundtrack intact is, I suspect, 50% of the reason anybody was attracted to the series in the first place. STAR BLAZERS boasted a full orchestral score, the equivalent of what would only have been done for a major motion picture. The off-the-books non-union voice cast was uniformly good, and performed their parts with a minimum of hamminess–in other words, they took the program seriously.
Watching those 52 episodes, I became aware of the original roots of the series. And following up on that, I learned that not only had the STAR BLAZERS episodes been heavily edited for violence and running time (meaning that there was more footage to be seen somewhere out there), but the original YAMATO was so popular in Japan that new programs and movies were still being made! In trying to seek these mysterious additional stories out, I made the acquaintance of the burgeoning fandom for what was then referred to as “Japanimation”, including some folks who would become lifelong friends. It also exposed me to a whole universe of storytelling of which I was not at all familiar, as I watched programs such as GUNDAM or MACROSS or LUPIN III on crummy sixth-generation videotape copies.
The original YAMATO story was made into a live action movie in 2010, an event so Earth-shaking that my family and a circle of friends made the journey to Japan in order to see it opening day. More recently, the first storyline was remade and updated as SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO 2199–which is worlds better animated than the original, but which somehow loses the quiet sense of desperation and loneliness and despair that permeated the original show. (It also tends to spend way too much time, in my opinion, trying to find plausible rationales for a WWII-era battleship fling through space, as opposed to simply accepting that that’s the premise and not questioning it so much.)