The latest issue of Otaku USA has a couple of features on the anime classic series Space Battleship Yamato. While reading these features and the writers talking about their first times seeing the series, it got me thinking about how I was introduced to it.
Like most other people my age, my first exposure to Japanese animation was through the cartoons that were brought over and re-written for a US audience. Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman) were all shows I remember watching and liking, but they never differentiated them from the other cartoons I watched. That honor goes to another show; Star Blazers.
It was 1978, I’m almost certain. KTLA, channel 5, a local television station in the Los Angeles area. It had a show on the weekends that showed movies for kids; The Family Film Festival. It ran in the afternoons, after the morning cartoons were over, and there was only sports on the local channels (there was no cable at the time). So, the Family Film Festival was the best thing on. It was hosted by Tom Hatten, a well-known local personality. He sat in a director’s chair, a clipboard in his lap, next to a movie reel projector. He would introduce the movie to be shown and would give facts and trivia about the movie in before and after commercial breaks. It was here that on one Saturday, a new movie was shown Space Cruiser Yamato. That was the title as I remember it. It was the dub of the compilation movie of the series Space Battleship Yamato, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen! The music was awesome, the plot was great and the characters were interesting. It was unlike any cartoon I’d seen before, and I’d seen quite a bit on the Film Festival. They had shown animated movies from all over the world. But Yamato had no talking animals or slapstick. It was real-looking people, with real problems, facing real peril. You saw people die! I liked it so much that I watched it again on the Sunday morning replay! Both my older brother and I fell for this movie. I was confused by one thing though. The movie was call Space Cruiser Yamato, but the ship was called the Argo. For the first part of the movie, I was wondering where they got this Argo, and where was the Yamato? I didn’t dwell on it long though. Such things aren’t of great concern when you’re 9-10 years old.
The next summer, I spent searching through the TV Guide to see if the Yamato movie would be on again. I don’t think it was shown again, on KTLA, but for the fall, we got a better surprise; the TV series would be coming! It was called Star Blazers now, and it was on a different independent station, KCOP, channel 13. But there was no mistaking the 1/3 page ad in the TV Guide, or the familiar chords of the opening. The voices were the same as from the movie, as were the names. We didn’t get it in the afternoons like everyone else it seems. Star Blazers was shown in the morning, at like 7 or 7:30 AM. I remember my brother would set up an audio tape recorder next to this old black and white 13″ TV and record the audio. There wouldn’t be a VCR in our house for another 5 years at least. We would play back the tapes and just listen to the episodes we couldn’t watch. So now, everytime I watch an episode of Star Blazers, after the opening credits, in my head I hear the narration for the episode of the Argo preparing to leave the solar system…
Star Blazers was a big deal for my generation. It was the first time we saw animation do something so different. After a steady diet of Looney Toons and Hana-Barbera shows, it was a breath of fresh air to get something without talking animals or the zany sound effects. Instead, we got orchestra music with that marching band-sounding opening. Characters that looked and felt real; that got hurt, sacrificed themselves, and even died. There was no reset button with everyone back in the next episode.
We only got 1 3/4 of the Star Blazer series shown in the LA area. The show got moved right at the end of the second season with the Comet Empire. But I have a lasting memory from that as well, and it’s the one that set me up to becoming an anime/manga fan. Near the end, Desslock and Wildstar are dueling on Desslock’s damaged battle ship. During the fight, Wildstar is wounded, and Nova runs to his side. She’s prepared to sacrifice herself to stay with Wildstar. Desslock stares at them together, and lowers his gun and walks away. Nova’s love for Wildstar reached his heart, and rather than break up the lovers, he gives up on his revenge against Wildstar and the Star Force. And it was, with that moment, that I would become an anime fan. Never in American animation did you see the villain have a change of heart, or that you might think that the villain wasn’t just pure evil incarnate. With that great ambiguity, I was, and still am, hooked.