Humanising the Enemy Done Well – A Second Look At Yamato 2199

Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2199 - 08 (720)_eng.mkv_snapshot_11.02_[2013.01.01_00.17.23]

The currently-airing OVA-like remake of Space Battleship Yamato is now 10 episodes into its run and now has had the opportunity to build more of its plot and setting – in my previous article on the series I talked about how it built on the original’s ideas with a more consistent tone and style, and fully embraced the WW2-era patriotism that ultimately is at the concept’s root. As the series has progressed, it has developed this idea of nationalism and a powerful figurehead being set against a faceless horde by making the enemy more developed; in this way, the broadening of the story’s scale makes it more personal as now there is scope for rivalries between the two sides and notable leaders from both.

At first sight the villains of Yamato, the Gamilans and their decadent leader Desler, are a very ordinary example of the typical superior and oppressive alien empire that almost defines space opera as a subgenre of science-fiction. Technologically advanced and militaristic alien races stand in as representatives of human expansionism and tyranny across cultures’ science-fiction media, since the idea that humanity is fallible and the punching-bag of the universe allows for heroic underdog stories of revolution against the oppressor. In this way stories like the recent film District 9, in which mankind oppresses aliens in the same way it has oppressed native populations in the past, stand out as highly creative; they work more on the ideas of colonisation and systematic discrimination as opposed to using alien conquest as a catalyst for unity and fighting back against a common cause. However, such stories – beginning with the enemy in a position of overwhelming strength and then having them fall owing to the resolve and cunning of the oppressed – rely on creating a fallible and indeed often stupid villain to mastermind the failure.

In Yamato 2199, which places a surprising amount of focus on its incidental enemy figures, what is shown to bring about defeat in almost all cases is the Gamilans’ inability to work together over a vast empire, and an inability to decide on what is appropriate strategy. Their initial position has Earth beseiged and under constant attack, which makes the Yamato’s breakthrough possible; in remaining distant and simply letting their shelling and the radiation finish off humanity, they cannot react quickly enough to a single ship running the blockade and systematically attacking weakpoints in their line. These early battles, including the attack on the enemy’s missile silos on Pluto which forms the first major climax of the series and introduces the character of Schultz, do not present the Gamilans as comically inept as some antagonist civilisations in science-fiction are; their plans are solid and it is only the Yamato’s superior firepower and the innovative strategies its crew use that allow victory. The piecemeal nature of attacks on the Yamato are better-contextualised in 2199 than in many such serialised space operas; the emphasis placed on the scale of space and the logistical impossibility of maintaining a star-system wide blockade makes it entirely possible that a single ship would be able to avoid detection based on the setting’s technological rules.

The short plot arc involving Schultz, tied in to the first look the viewer has at the enemy’s leader Desler, is particularly effective at providing a good look at the series’ setting and providing exposition through a narrative arc. As a result of his failure, he is ordered to not return until he is either dead or victorious – a standard show of force within the genre’s book of traditions. In turn, the viewer learns by this character’s actions and interactions that the Gamilans crew their ships with effectively hostages from conquered races and use citizenship as an incentive to fight; “second-class” citizens can become “honorary” citizens and improve their station if they serve Desler well. The inclusion of details like this via episodes showing an officer fighting only to see his family (living as second-class citizens) served well in the future go some way to addressing the logistics of the empire depicted – too often in trying to create loathsome villains, space opera does not consider what would keep a civilisation based on cruelty and oppression unified and not at the point of rebellion. Yamato 2199, in providing this context for the Gamilans’ methods, builds a logically stronger (if still fantastical) setting. While Desler is depicted as vain, decadent and ultimately prepared to kill on a whim, the end of the Schultz episodes – in which, following Schultz’ death as his plan failed, Desler gives his surviving family citizenship as compensation – completes the picture of the Gamilans as a more reasonable and grounded “evil empire” archetype – while they have a thirst for conquest and are clearly a tyrannical dictatorship, by humanising them by having even their leader show some compassion at times to non-combatants so early in the series all future episodes have a new, logical context. The enemy began as faceless, identical ships in the early expository episodes but are now humanised.

This process continues into episode 10, where the viewer (who has now seen the Gamilans as an implacable conquering force, oppressive imperialists but led by a capricious dictator who understands the need for compassion to keep the people in line) sees the Yamato’s crew react to this information in-setting. As a stranded Gamilan ship works together with the Yamato – using a renowned admiral’s daughter as a bargaining-chip – its crew almost erupts into mutiny at the concept of helping the enemy. As the Gamilans try to retain the humans’ trust by silencing the hardliners, the humans simply see the attempted treachery. The episode is again a standard plot but marks a neat way of bringing the distance between the characters’ perception of the enemy and the viewer‘s into light. As the radicals on the Gamilan fleet ultimately doom themselves by trying to betray the Yamato’s crew – and the very laws and command structures they use to justify this resulting in their ships’ destruction as the crews refuse to help them – the episode ends with the idea of the humanised enemy still stronger in the viewers’ mind than the characters’.

Stock plots involving the enemy suddenly made relatable and given a face and voice are common in space-opera, and usually rely on the viewer and characters finding out the truth about the foe at the same time. By following Schultz and his family – and Desler’s own character – in expository scenes, Yamato 2199 puts the viewer one step ahead when episode 10 has the ship’s crew finally meet a Gamilan soldier and so the standard mistrust and conflict is viewed from a slightly different angle.

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