I love Star Blazers.
From the moment I caught a random episode of the landmark '70s anime series, known in Japan as Space Battleship Yamato, I was hooked. I've written about my deep affection for the show and my disappointment with its shortcomings. As a young female anime fan, I sought representation wherever I could, and I struggled to find myself in Nova Forrester (a.k.a. Yuki Mori), the only female character on the show. Nova was a lithe, shapely, blonde beauty with eyelashes out to Jupiter, yet I clung to her and her headstrong personality. I had no clue what Smurfette Syndrome was until adulthood, and while I look back on my Star Blazers obsession with fondness, I've wondered about the what-ifs. What if Nova wasn't alone? What if there were other female crew members to watch and relate to and aspire to be?
The 2012 Star Blazers reboot appears to address the Smurfette problem by including more named female characters: five characters on the Yamato crew, three female characters from the planet Iscandar, and two characters from the antagonistic Garmillas Empire.
So, does the reboot fare any better than the original?
Yuki's '70s version serves as a bridge officer and as the only available nurse. She is also sexually harassed (for laughs!) by an inexplicably lecherous robot named Analyzer. These horrors are edited out of the version that aired after-school in '80s America.
Reboot Yuki mirrors the original in many ways. She's the ship's radar officer, and she's involved with Star Blazers' main male protagonist, Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildstar in the original dub). Thankfully, she's no longer shouldered with being the ship's nurse too and is no longer the victim of inadvertent panty shots (but we'll get to reboot's fan service a little later).
Yuki's similarity to another character, Sasha Iscandar, is mentioned in passing in the original, but it's a major plot point in the reboot. Yuki escorts alien emissary Sasha during a peace mission to Earth, and a terrorist attacks their motorcade, killing Sasha and gravely wounding Yuki. She suffers from retrograde amnesia, unable to remember much of her life before the attack. Yuki's identity is constantly called into question by other characters, and they all assume that she's actually the dead Princess Sasha. Yuki is eventually kidnapped by the Garmillas Empire, whose leaders fully believe that she's a member of the Iscandar royal family. Yuki's gains a unique perspective on the war while on the Garmillas homeworld, and she escapes with a newly-forged resolve to end the conflict. By the end of the season, reboot Yuki is a much more rounded and realistic character than '70s Yuki.
However, Yuki still shares her original counterpart's fate, dying at the hands of the enemy and then (spoiler alert) being miraculously resurrected by the end of the series, much to her boyfriend's delight. After all she's suffered: getting blown up in a bomb attack, not to mention surviving on a hostile alien planet, she is still killed off because the writers believe that her death and resurrection are an integral part of her character.
No. Her death and resurrection are an integral part of her boyfriend's character, and fans love to watch Susumu Kodai work through his man-pain. To be fair, Yuki isn't exactly fridged, but Susumu's still processing the death of his older brother, so is piling even more man-pain on him (at Yuki's expense) really worth it?
Makoto Harada takes over as ship's nurse from Yuki's original duties, but much of her screen time is spent as a foil to the ship's functioning alcoholic medical officer, Doctor Sato. Makoto was created to fill a purpose (Yuki can't realistically be on the bridge and also be on-call for medical emergencies), but most of the time the narrative doesn't know what to do with her. Makoto is incredibly well-endowed, which elicits (what is meant to be) a hilarious series of shenanigans (bordering on sexual harassment). Analyzer doesn't do the honors this time; we have a suspiciously-timed gravity malfunction take over instead.
She's well-meaning but slightly dim, so naturally, her pure heart earns the love of the resident badass fighter pilot Saburo Kato. It's too bad that this relationship isn't allowed to develop on-screen. They start off teasing each other, like stereotypical middle-school crushes. By the time their wedding is announced, I needed to rewind through previous episodes because I thought I missed the big "I love you" reveal. Also, because their wedding is happening right in the middle of Yuki (supposedly) dying, viewers get to witness Susumu's struggling to be happy for a friend's nuptials while quietly dying on the inside because of jealousy and man-pain.
Yuria is saddled with a bizarre narrative that strips away her agency completely. She claims to be sensitive to supernatural happenings, and she's dismissed by the rest of the crew because it's the 22nd century. Her fears turn into nightmarish reality when she's inexplicably possessed by the restless consciousness of an alien that the Yamato has locked up in a box and whose presence the ship is using as a sort of organic transgalactic GPS.
Yuria becomes eyes and ears for this consciousness, who identifies herself as Yurisha, princess of the planet Iscandar and Earth ally. This possession is portrayed as magical and necessary, but it comes off as utterly creepy. The initial possession scene is framed like a horror movie, with a terrified Yuria alone in the dark with the metal coffin. Yuria/Yurisha spends a few episodes confusing the heck out her crewmates, hilarity ensuing. But there's something skeevy about watching a bubbly girl suddenly transform into a mature woman, who is willing to take full advantage of her sex appeal.
Eventually, Yurisha relinquishes control of the body back to Yuria, without any major side effects, apart from my personal freak out because fully losing control and agency is one of my least favorite tropes ever.
Akira is the only character from the '70s series who has been gender-swapped in the reboot. Originally a minor pilot character with shaggy, overgrown bangs, Akira is now a full-fledged major character, with an origin story that, you guessed it, involves a man. Specifically, her older brother, a pilot who perished in the war against the Garmillas Empire, and whose death Akira is desperate to avenge.
Akira clashes with squadron leader Saburo (her brother's best friend, naturally) and she gets pummelled with loads of "Go home"s and "You don't belong here"s from her fellow pilots. Until, surprise of surprises, she steals a jet and holds her own in a dogfight. Her skills proven, she earns a spot on the Yamato's elite space jet squadron. Then and only then does Saburo begin to open up about his own man-pain about the loss of Akira's brother.
Akira only gains respect once she's shown as one of the boys, but her rough and tumble personality begins to soften when she meets Susumu Kodai. Susumu, who only has eyes for Yuki, is completely oblivious to Akira's interest in him, and while he respects her piloting skills, he refuses to see her as anything other than a skilled pilot and team-mate. Thankfully, Akira doesn't pine over him for very long, and she does not end up with any of the other members of her squad. (Not that there's any lack of trying among those flirtatious bastards.)
Another new character created specifically for the reboot, Kaoru is the ship's counselor, intelligence officer, and chief liaison to the United Nations. She's saddled with a Tragic Past involving a dead boyfriend, whose ghostly presence haunts her (literally and figuratively) and spurs her actions. And while there's nothing wrong with a woman with a Tragic Past, the show enjoys framing her like a centerfold.
Glasses? Check. Skin-tight catsuit? Check. Well-endowed and gravity-defying chest? Check. She doesn't need this overt sexiness to be an interesting character. It's fan service to the extreme: entirely unnecessary and yet it exists.
The Iscandar royal family
Queen Starsha and her sisters manage somewhat better than the Yamato bridge crew because they aren't completely reliant on men to spur their narratives. The sisters are the last remnants of the planet Iscandar. Starsha witnesses the rise of the Garmillas Empire and offers humanity the technology to ward off the Garmillans' toxic terraforming of Earth. Her initial offer is selfless, but she second-guesses her choice when she sees the humans be as heinously brutal as the Garmillans.
Starsha is portrayed as the perfect woman. She is nurturing, yet strict. Her beauty is otherworldly. Her intelligence is unmatched, and yet she still has to deal with gross men. The Garmillan leader, Dessler, treats her with all the respect of a disgraced Hollywood exec flirting with an up-and-coming actress.
Yes, show, we get it. Dessler is evil. He's EVIL. E*V*I*L even, but does the audience have to witness the man plunging into the depths of awfulness to prove how evil he is?
Miezela is the Garmillas Empire's Propaganda Minister, and her role as a member of Dessler's inner circle is unique, as the only woman and the only non-Garmillan. She, a Jirellan, is inherently telepathic, which has earned her the epithet "witch" among the high-ranking members of the Empire.
Here's a strong, capable woman who is utterly loyal and dedicated, and again, her narrative is framed through her relationship with a man. If she weren't Dessler's "favorite," she wouldn't have gained a spot as one of his advisors. She holds a valued position at Dessler's side, and she's utterly infatuated with him because he "rescued" her from a life in the slums. You know, those slums that his empire created in the first place by conquering Miezela's home planet.
During Yuki's time as a hostage of the empire, she asks Miezela point-blank if she's in love with Dessler, and Miezela laughs the idea off. Yet, her actions are glaringly obvious to Yuki. This is a little girl who grew up and is now head over heels for her captor.
Melda Dietz, a Garmillan fighter pilot who becomes a prisoner of war, discovers, after spending time with humans, that there isn't much difference between their peoples after all. A man also spurs her narrative, her father in this case. He's a high ranking official falsely accused of assassinating Dessler, and Melda uncovers a conspiracy to kill officers who seek peace with the humans. Melda eventually works with the Yamato crew and Yurisha of Iscandar to broker for peace.
Melda clashes with her human equivalent, Akira, but they do become close friends, to the point of sharing parfaits with each other. Yes, the Star Blazers reboot shows these little character moments between women. Because sometimes, you just wanna watch women have ice cream.
And fail the Bechdel test.
Because whenever women who've fought on different sides of an intergalactic war interact, the first thing they want to do is bond over who they wanna snog senseless. Fact.
The original Star Blazers' attempt at fan service amounted to a pervy robot sexually harassing Yuki. With more female crew members present in the reboot, there's bound to be more fan service, like the obligatory swimsuit episode.
Oh, you say, but this show is about a spaceship embroiled in an intergalactic war. There isn't time for a swimsuit episode!
There's always time for a swimsuit episode.
But this trope is subverted by Melda and Akira flirting with each other while swimming. At least, that's how I choose to interpret this scene and you can't stop me.
The 2012 Star Blazers reboot is better than the original for female representation. But the reboot is frustratingly male-gazey, with many shots framed to titillate, because an updated version of one of the most popular and influential anime series of all time can't have the same impact if it doesn't have panty shots and boob-butt poses. Anime is still incredibly trope-driven and incredibly heteronormative, and male/female pairings just exist as a wish-fulfillment scenario for mostly male viewers.
If the original Star Blazers is able to edit out the worst of Analyzer's perviness without sacrificing the core of the story, then shouldn't the reboot be able to do the same? Introducing more female characters improved narrative quality. Now, let's remove the outdated, sexist tropes which have no place in a story set two centuries in the future.