I look back at my childhood growing up in Hawaii with equal parts fondness and dread. There’s something idyllic about spending one’s formative years on an island, and yet that isolation implanted within me a burning wanderlust. I loved the multiculturalism of my home as much as I hated how trapped I felt. I sought escape in books and television, to the point where my mom fretted over how I’d ruin my brain and my eyesight watching so many mindless cartoons. But some of the shows I watched were far from the standard toy advertisements of the ‘80s. Although I enjoyed She-Ra and Care Bears as much as anyone else who grew up during that era, my fannish heart belonged to a cartoon called Star Blazers.
I don’t exactly recall the first time I watched this show, but I do remember the lasting impact of its opening theme song.
We’re off to outer spaaaaaaaace
We’re leeeaaving Mother Earrrrrth
To saaaaaave the human raaaaaaace
OUR STAR BLAZERS
Nothing else on afternoon TV at the time was introduced by a choir of baritone voices.
And the lyrics.
We must be strong and braaaaave
Our home we have to saaaaaave
If we doooon’t in just one year
Mother Earth will disappeaaaaaaar
A cartoon about desperate quest to save the whole of humanity? My elementary school brain soaked this angst up. In a landscape where the standard plot involved the bad guys getting defeated by the good guys, which never seemed to break the stalemate between the two, Star Blazers featured an entire serialized story from start to finish. The show challenged its young viewers, and some now look back on Star Blazers with genuine fondness. It's a gateway anime for many, including me.
In the year 2199, the Earth is under attack by an evil alien race. The Gamilons continuously bombard our planet with radioactive bombs that render the surface uninhabitable. Humanity has resorted to living underground, but the radiation from the planet bombs is also seeping into humanity’s vast underground cities. Humans are on the verge of becoming extinct. All seems lost until a message comes from beyond the solar system. Queen Starsha of the distant planet Iscandar claims to have a way to restore the Earth, but she doesn’t have the means to send it.
A ship must travel from Earth to Iscandar to fetch the cure. And she also sent over plans to build an FTL engine because of course she did. Humanity bands together, as we often do when faced with incredible hardship, and retrofits the engine into the WWII Japanese battleship the Yamato. The ship is rechristened the Argo (after the famed vessel of Greek mythology) and her crew, the Star Force, embarks on its quest to bring back
the Golden Fleece the Cosmic DNA which will heal the Earth. The team encounters a lot of weird stuff along the way, as well as falling into battles with the Gamilons who naturally don’t want the humans to get the means to fix their planet.
Spoiler alert: the Argo makes it to Iscandar.
But I did not know this when I was seven.
I rushed home from school every day so that I could catch the next episode. I loved it all. I loved the ragtag nature of the crew. I loved the hotheaded protagonist of the series, Derek Wildstar. I loved his burgeoning romance with Nova Forrester. I loved grizzled old Captain Avatar. I loved the ship’s medic, Dr. Sane, and his eternally happy disposition. Seven-year-old me had no clue that his rosy cheeks were a sign of something other than enjoying his “spring water.”
Yep, Dr. Sane was a functioning alcoholic, and the producers of the English dub decided to hide his constant sipping on sake.
As a kid, I always wondered how good Dr. Sane’s “spring water” was and why none of the water I drank seemed to make me as delighted as he constantly was.
As an adult, I still wonder why sake doesn’t make me as delighted as Dr. Sane constantly was.
Star Blazers presented high stakes. If the Star Force didn’t succeed in reaching Iscandar, everyone on Earth would die. Heady stuff for the weekday afternoon cartoon block. The show continually pounded on the “will they make it” aspect of the plot by actually counting down the days the crew had before the Earth, y’know, snuffed it.
Star Blazers felt like the most dramatic cartoon on television. Characters lived and loved. Friendships were tested. And yes, there was death. Permanent death. Captain Avatar already suffered from the radiation sickness that plagued humans because of the planet bombs, but, as ill as he was, he chose to lead the mission to Iscandar rather than languish in a hospital bed. Avatar survived just long enough to witness the ship’s return to Earth, and his death made for a bittersweet ending to the season.
RIP you magnificent bastard.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer an appreciation for the show’s main villain, the leader of the alien Gamilons, Desslok. He had a voice like a Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine, and the skin color to match, but while he oversaw the constant bombardment of Earth, he still held a grudging respect for the humans who got in the way of his plans.
For the first few episodes of the show, however, Desslok was more of a human hue than blue, and the show never addressed the sudden switch of skin color.
My guess is solidarity with his boyfriend in that one Daft Punk video.
(Yes, I know Leiji Matsumoto’s responsible for both. Just let me enjoy my “two blue guys snogging” fantasies.)
Long before Star Trek, before I knew anything of Kirk and the Enterprise bridge crew, I already had my template of how space exploration was supposed to work. The Argo’s crew felt diverse, like a microcosm of humanity traversing the cosmos. They encountered bizarre lifeforms and dangerous worlds, but they never once decided to turn back towards Earth. They never lost sight of their mission.
Before I watched A New Hope for the first time, before I saw a desperate Rebellion strike a blow against a totalitarian Empire, Star Blazers showed that evil can only be defeated when people work together. The entirety of Earth worked on making the Argo spaceworthy, and humanity wouldn’t even have a chance of survival without Queen Starsha. She witnessed Earth’s suffering and instead of turning away, this queen of a distant planet put together a mercy mission.
Looking back, I had always believed that Star Blazers was a pastiche of these two juggernauts of genre, a mashup that took all the cool things each franchise had to offer. So while writing this, I decided to look up when the show initially started. Space Battleship Yamato, as the original Japanese animated series was called, first aired in 1974. (That’s three years before Star Wars.)
My confusion stems from the design of one of the members of the Argo’s crew, a smart-alecky robot called IQ-9. IQ-9 worked in the sickbay with Dr. Sane but was also a valued part of the ship’s survey team. I always figured someone working on the show saw R2-D2, thought, “Hey, that dude needs arms,” and came up with this.
But now I know that IQ-9 predates the idea of astromech droids.
My mind, she is blown.
Ever since my infatuation with Star Blazers began in the ‘80s, I’ve looked continuously for similar genre stories. For me, Star Blazers came before Star Wars and Star Trek, but once I saw the similarities, I got hooked on them both. When I discovered that Star Blazers was an anime, or Japanimation as we oldbies called it a generation ago, I sought out shows with similar themes: epic battles between good and evil, near-impossible quests, and the underlying heroism of humanity. My searches have been hit and miss, and there are some types of anime shows I now adore, like delightfully tropey sports anime or equally tropey slice of life anime, which you couldn’t shoehorn into Star Blazers.
Maybe if there was one episode where the Star Force had to play a pick-up softball game with an alien race that REALLY LOVES SOFTBALL.
Star Blazers sparked my lifelong fascination with anime and the potential of serialized animated storytelling. But the show is by no means perfect. Nova is the only female member of the crew. No, not just the only female member of the bridge crew, the only female member of the crew, period. And she had to fight to keep her place on the ship. I never questioned this as a child, but back then, all of the cartoons I watched had Smurfette Syndrome. Yes, Nova was capable and brave and smart, but she didn’t have to be the only woman on-board. It's frustrating to see such a massive misstep in something I hold so close to my heart.
Star Blazers also inspired my first cosplay, but no discernable proof of its existence exists, which I am grateful for. My enthusiastic Sharpie-coloring ruined a pair of old white PJs that I wanted to turn into a Star Force uniform, downward-pointing arrow and all. My abject failure should be a lesson to all future kid cosplayers that if you’re going to experiment with permanent marker, make sure to tape down some newspapers first.
Such was my devotion to Star Blazers.
I’ll never forget my first.