I Love Japanese Science Fiction

I have long been fascinated with Japan, its culture, and its science fiction. My very first exposure to Japanese science fiction was, like many Western children, Godzilla (ゴジラ). The first time I came across Godzilla was a Saturday afternoon on television.

I didn’t really understand what was going on at first, the people were speaking English (dubbed), but the lips didn’t match the words. I was probably on the verge of giving up on the film, but then Godzilla roared onto the screen and I was hooked.

Godzilla film poster from 1954.
Toho Company Ltd. (東宝株式会社, Tōhō Kabushiki-kaisha) © 1954

I couldn’t get enough of these giant monsters which I now know are called kaiju (カイジュ). My mum would try to get me out of the house, but I wouldn’t go anywhere until I knew for certain that no Godzilla or other kaiju film would be on. Each week I would wait and hope for another film with these giant, radioactive monsters to appear before me, where they would assault Tokyo, its surroundings and each other. What could be better than two, or more, giant creatures beating each other into submission.

Along with Godzilla were Mothra, Rodan, Gamera, and many others. Each of these giant creatures had different talents and abilities and fighting styles, but Godzilla was the first and to me the best of them all. These films opened the door to me and many others I’m sure, to a world beyond our Western culture and science fiction.

In 2014 we will see the release of Hollywood’s latest attempt at a Godzilla film. I’m hopeful about this film after seeing Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

In 1979 Japan brought forth my first exposure to the style of cartoon known as anime with the ground breaking series Star Blazers, or Space Battleship Yamato (宇宙戦艦ヤマト) as it is originally titled.

In the first series of Star Blazers Earth has been attacked by the planet Gamilon with radiation bombs that have laid waste to the surface of the Earth. Humanity lives in cities beneath the surface. A message from far off Iscandar gives the promise of hope for Earth and the old Battleship Yamato is raised as a spaceship and sent after the ‘Cosmic DNA’ device to remove the deadly radiation.

Star Blazers, while ostensibly a mere cartoon, offered a very compelling and at times adult story. Each series of Star Blazers consisted of a single story arc, and while each episode was a self contained unit, each episode also pushed the overall arc forward a little more.

Part of my sci-fi collection, an as yet unbuilt model of the Space Battleship Yamato.
Part of my sci-fi collection, an as yet unbuilt model of the Space Battleship Yamato.

Star Blazers also introduced me to Japanese designs. The Japanese designs were softer and rounder, not as hard, sharp and angular as Western designs of the time. The Argo (Yamato) looked familiar, yet somewhat alien as well. It was a completely different and exciting look at how someone else viewed the future. The Argo (Yamato) was a mixture of old and new, especially with the giant Wave Motion Gun.

Blu-ray cover of Space Battleship Yamato (2010) live action film.
Blu-ray cover of Space Battleship Yamato (2010) live action film.

While Star Blazers was only on for three series, it had such an impact in Japan that a live action film debuted in 2010 and just this year the first series of Space Battleship Yamato was remade as Space Battleship Yamato 2199 (宇宙戦艦ヤマト2199). There is also an English live action film in development with Christopher McQuarrie to write the screenplay and direct.

And it has just been announced that Space Battleship Yamato 2199 will be released 17 February, 2014 with English and Japanese subtitles. You can watch the announcement here.

Star Blazers paved the way for all the interest in anime in the West, but following closely on the heels of Star Blazers came another great anime series, Mobile Suit Gundam.

Mobile Suit Gundam RX-78-2 from the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam
(機動戦士ガンダム Kidō Senshi Gandamu).
© Kunio Okawara 1979

Gundams are giant powered robots piloted by a single person. The Gundams were inspired by the powered armour of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). Their weaponry includes guns, swords, and hand-to-hand combat.

Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム) follows the war of independence of the Principality of Zeon from the Earth Federation. The war touched every continent on Earth and in every colony and lunar settlement.

The story follows the exploits of fifteen year old Amuro Ray, a civilian living on the Side 7 colony, and his friends as they battle Char Anzable and the Zeon forces. In the first episode an untrained Amuro Ray hijacks the RX-78-2 Gundam and repels a Zeon attack on Side 7. Pretty gutsy for a teenager.

That first series spawned multiple films, series, video games and an enormous toy and model industry. In fact the Gundam models, which vary in grade and price, are probably more popular than the series/films themselves. There are Gunpla (as the models are known) building competitions world wide with an annual Gunpla Builders World Cup. Some of these models are truly beautiful.

Gundam is so popular in Japan that a life size, 18 metre tall statue of the RX-78 Gundam was erected in 2009 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mobile Suit Gundam’s broadcast in Japan. It now resides in Diver City Toyko, Odaiba, Tokyo, Japan in front of Gundam Front, the museum dedicated to Gundam and Gunpla. I have every intention of seeing this for myself.

Cover of 2009 Battle Royale: The Novel expanded English edition. Source: Haikasoru
Cover of 2009 Battle Royale: The Novel expanded English edition.
Source: Haikasoru

In the last few years I have discovered, thanks to Haikasoru, some very talented Japanese writers. Haikasoru has been translating and publishing Japanese language science fiction, fantasy and horror into English. With books including Battle Royale: The Novel (バトル・ロワイアル Batoru Rowaiaru) by Koushun Takami, Yukikaze (戦闘妖精雪風 Sentō Yōsei Yukikaze) by Chohei Kambayashi, and All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the English speaking world now has access to some very good Japanese science fiction.

Thanks to these English translations All You Need Is Kill has been adapted into the film Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and set for release in 2014. Yukikaze is also set to become a film. Battle Royale was originally a film released in 2000 and if you’ve not seen it I would recommend that you do so.

Japan’s culture is often seen as a culture of deep tradition and history, so it may seem odd that Japan has brought us some very inventive and innovative science fiction. On the contrary, Japan as a whole, seems to be very forward and accepting of science fiction and ready to incorporate it’s ideas and ideals. I eagerly look forward to getting know the Japanese culture and science fiction even more fully in the years to come. Arigato gozaimasu Japan.

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