Villian’s Exposition: Yamato and Nadesico

Ahh, the space opera: an epic tale of conflict and human emotions told in the timeless backdrop of the space between the stars; the modern-day successor to the classical romances of the middle ages, featuring such names as King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

Although the quintessential space opera, Star Wars, is American, it is a genre that works especially well when animated, and as such it is a common setting for anime. While there are many that stand out, for the purposes of brevity – and to better adhere to the material I’ve already bothered preparing for this article – I’ve decided to focus your attention on two this month: Space Battleship Yamato and Martian Successor Nadesico.

If the first one sounds vaguely familiar, then chances are you’re over the age of 30. Although the show aired originally in 1974 in Japan, it was imported to America, severely edited, and run as Star Blazers, allowing (producers hoped) Claster Television to capitalize on the popularity of science fiction in the years after Star Wars and Star Trek.

Even though the animation in Yamato is nothing to write home about, it certainly does not fail to portray the story, and even today you begin to overlook the little imperfections after just a few episodes. On the surface, the plot is fairly cliché – vessel sets out on a 1-year journey to save the Earth – but after a few episodes, you realize that they take an interesting, and even moderately realistic approach to the subject. It ends with an engaging storyline, excellent pacing and, despite a few exceptions, thoroughly human characters.

Nadesico, on the other hand, was not blazing new territory when it debuted. Indeed, by 1996, the use of anime to tell a story about space was ubiquitous. It has a fairly standard reluctant protagonist surrounded by a harem of girls, all interested in him in one way or another, and unoriginal, if interesting, mechanical designs. On the surface, all Nadesico has going for it are above-average animation and an original take on an old idea. Hell, even the bridge layout on the title ship is only slightly different from the Argo (the main battleship in Yamato).

But, much as with Yamato, taking a closer look yields a thoroughly unexpected bounty. Although Nadesico obviously takes a lot of its plot ideas and designs straight from other shows, including Yamato, it does so in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion. It actively parodies other shows, not only allowing fan[insert genderless pronoun here]s to laugh at the inside jokes, but letting them laugh at themselves. How many ridiculous things do you have to take for granted for Zeta Gundam to make sense? How about Evangelion? Within the context of a different show, which holds a mirror to both itself and other anime through the use of Gekiganger, it’s easy to chuckle at it – albeit a bit self-consciously.

Don’t be too quick, though, to say that we’ve obviously come a long way in terms of both animation and plot. We must remember that Yamato, for all its flaws, is over 30 years old now. Ideas that are now cliché were once shiny and new, and it’s shows like Yamato, which inspired so many imitators, that pioneered these ideas before others drove them into the ground. Without the Space Battleship Yamatos of the anime world, we wouldn’t even have a reason to laugh at the Martian Successor Nadesicos. Indeed, there wouldn’t be a reason to write them, since the ideas would be new enough that suspending disbelief would still be the name of the game.

Still skeptical? Did I forget to mention that the “Martian Successor” part of the show’s title is actually a red herring – a phrase stolen from the later movie, Prince of Darkness? The original Japanese title of the show is High Mobility Battleship Nadesico, which, strangely enough, sounds vaguely similar to Yamato’s full title.

But I’m sure that’s just coincidence….