On an overcast afternoon, some time in 1980, my father picked me up at elementary school and dropped me off at my maternal grandparents’ place. I can’t remember the reason for this break in regular routine, but there did always seem to be some minor crisis going on with my family in those days.
The door was locked when I got there, so I fished out the “back-up” key hidden behind the old circular washing machine in the back porch and let myself in. My grandmother had left a note on the table to let me know that she had to run out and take care of an errand with my pre-school age brother and that there were whoopie pies on the counter and juice in the fridge. Next to the note was a blister-carded Captain America branded Hot Wheels Trans Am, which the note said Lil Bro had picked out for me when they went shopping earlier.
I gathered up some treats and my sweet new prize and plunked myself down in front of the tiny color TV in the living room. After a few minutes of turning the dial and fiddling with the set’s rabbit ears, I settled in to watch the latest installment of Star Blazers.
The chopped ‘n’ dubbed localization of Space Battleship Yamato was my first exposure to the world of anime and also happened to hit several of my pre-teen sweet spots — an epic space opera akin to Star Wars, told in serialized format like a comic book, and featuring futuristic iterations of massive naval vessels. (Some kids obsess over tyrannosaurus rexes and pteranodons. I obsessed over the Bismarck and the Hood.)
I strove to catch the show when I could but it aired almost immediately after the school day ended, which was prime “dicking around with my neighborhood friends” time. Despite some gaps, I did follow it closely enough to understand the overall gist of the plot.
By this time, the series was substantial way through its second season, in which the members of the Star Force had reunited to confront a new threat to intergalactic peace. That threat is the fearsome Comet Empire, a bunch of lime-complexioned evildoers who roam around the universe in a weaponized Roger Dean painting while ominous organ tones play in the background. While the concept was pretty much a weak retread of the first season’s urgency-driven quest to save Earth from becoming a radioactive tomb, the weaknesses were offset by greater sophistication on the animation and plot-weaving fronts.
The episode I tuned into that afternoon was a critical one. Having returned from its intel-gathering mission to planet Telezart and conferred with its very wispy and very blonde last survivor, the Battleship Argo joins up with the rest of Earth’s defense fleet to make a desperate final stand around Saturn. Facing them is the entire naval might of the Comet Empire minus its support carrier groups, which had been destroyed by an Argo-led sneak attack.
The looming confrontation between the two fleets was the Star Blazers equivalent of “Oops! All Berries” — an episode length space battle with scores of imagination-capturing capital ships blowing the bezeejus out of each other with the fate of humanity on the line. I savored every minute of it, my body riding one adrenaline spike after another as the tides of war shifted back and forth on the small screen.
The Earth armada eventually prevailed over its invading counterparts, but only after suffering severe losses from the Empire’s superior weaponry. The victory celebrations were cut short, however, by the arrival of the Comet Empire’s wandering throneworld. Even a massed volley of continent-shattering “wave motion gun” shots can’t stop the behemoth from wiping out the Earth fleet within a couple of minutes.
Its engine ablaze after a collision with one of its escorts, the wounded Argo can only drift helplessly as the leader of the Earth forces wishes the Star Force good luck as he rams his dying flagship into the throneworld as a final gesture of defiance.
Thankfully my grandmother wasn’t there to hear me mutter holy shit as the end credits came up and I tried to process what I had just watched. It made such an impression that I managed to retain other associative details alongside it — the feel of the Hot Wheels car in my hand, the texture of faux leather ottoman I was sprawled across, the painless welts the orange pile carpeting left on my forearms.
I only caught the episode once (until recently) but it loomed larger in influential memory than anything from Star Wars or Star Trek combined. Multiple reams of manila drawing paper were given over to trying to recreate the tableau from memory or etch my own epic space battles. The doomed flagship Andromeda became my platonic ideal for spaceship design, and the subconscious need to capture the grandiose scale of that episode tripped me up while trying to get various Mekton campaigns off the ground.
About a month or so back, I got the itch to go back and watch the first two seasons of Star Blazers. I’d tried to do it a few times over the years, but the dated animation and “it’ll do” dialogue dubbing drove me to give up after a couple of episodes. This time, I did manage to stick it out (by switching to subtitled episodes of the original Japanese run about halfway through, which include a lot more on-screen suicide and creepy fanservice than what us North American kiddies got).
A lot of it is hokey and nonsensical by contemporary standards, but a surprising number of the emotional beats have retained their power. One moment, I was rolling my eyes at a goofy line read. The next, I was gripping the arms of my chair with white-knuckle tension. The second season was an even more interesting experience because I remembered so little of it apart from that one specific episode. I could feel myself getting twitchy as that moment approached. This was partly because of the dramatic tension building up to it but also because I’d be confronting a significant artifact from my past for the first time in almost four decades. There’d be no nostalgic inflation or rose-tinted filters, just the genuine article in the raw.
I caught it earlier this week and…it still affected me on multiple levels. I tend to be a sucker for doomed acts of defiance, a personality trait that operates in a “chicken or the egg” relationship with my leftist politics. The animation was cruder and the battle slightly less majestic than I remembered, but the holy shit came from my lips as reflexively as it did when I was eight. In some ways, it shook me even more as an adult presently living through painfully “interesting” times — the sense of camaraderie and support among the crew of a vessel that spends a great deal of time getting the shit blasted out of it.