Sunday, June 19, 2011

Star Blazers was light years ahead of Game of Thrones

(This post first appeared in a completely fucked-up form on Blogcritics. The following version doesn't contain any of the inane edits that were made to it by a really sloppy editor. One of those inane edits actually reworded a fact about a production company so that what it now said about that company was factually incorrect. It's so goddamn frustrating, man.)

The HBO medieval drama's most shocking twist brings to mind a similar moment from a classic '70s animated series

That's the weirdest-looking toilet I've ever seen.
It's been a long time since an HBO drama series has made me think to myself at the end of each episode, "God, I'm dying to see what happens next week." The last HBO drama to elicit a reaction like that from me was David Simon's Iraq war show Generation Kill. But that was actually a miniseries, not a drama with a not-so-limited run like The Sopranos, so the last non-Generation Kill HBO drama where I was really invested in every character was The Wire three years ago--until Game of Thrones came along.

(WARNING: Anyone who has never watched either of the two shows that are mentioned in this post's title can leave now. Spoilers right after the parenthesis.)

In "Baelor," the penultimate episode of its soon-to-end first season, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' enthralling adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels shocked viewers like myself who are unfamiliar with the source material--and have had a hell of a time carefully shielding their eyes from online discussions of spoilers from those books--by killing off its lead character Ned Stark (Sean Bean). I'm eager to see how the show will go on without a paternal figure who was as central to the first season of Game of Thrones as Tony was to The Sopranos or Bill Adama was to the Battlestar Galactica remake and was such a prominent presence in HBO's billboard and poster art (the face of the Game of Thrones promotional campaign was Bean, who, in a weird moment of life half-assedly imitating art, survived a stabbing outside a London bar on the same night that Ned lost his head on HBO).

Hey Joffrey, quit smiling for the camera. Fucking prick.
There have been shows that have killed off leads during their first or second seasons before, either because the producers weren't getting along with their star, he or she wanted to quit the show or in the case of the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules, the star tragically passed away. Game of Thrones is one of the few shows that had its lead killed for narrative reasons.

"He dies for the same reason Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore and Gandalf had to die," observed James Hibberd in his Entertainment Weekly recap of "Baelor." "It takes the Stark kids--who are all too young to face these responsibilities--and thrusts them into a struggle where they're forced to quickly grow as characters."

This totally looks like a Grizzly Adams cast reunion.
The Stark patriarch's decapitation is a risky move that immediately reminded me of the death of Captain Avatar at the end of the first season of Star Blazers, a redubbed and censored-for-kids American version of Yoshinobu Nishizaki and Leiji Matsumoto's Space Battleship Yamato, a serialized '70s Japanese cartoon about a crew of intergalactic war survivors who, in season 1, journey through space to find an alien device that will help undo the nuclear radiation that damaged Earth.

Star Blazers first aired in 1979, during the height of the first Star Wars film's popularity, but I first caught the show as a kid a few years later. (The Argo in the midst of combat was my favorite image to doodle on my schoolwork in first grade.) I had been enjoying reruns of the cartoon's first season during Syfy's Thursday night anime programming block last month, before Syfy took Star Blazers off the air permanently last week. Apparently, the network doesn't have enough spots on its schedule for seven-year-old reruns of Stargate: Special Victims Unit.

Ned's demise is undoubtedly one of the most shocking character deaths in TV history (some Game of Thrones fans are steamed about it and have expressed their displeasure to HBO). But the grizzled Avatar's long, slow death from radiation poisoning decades before Ned's execution is slightly more daring. What other space opera on TV at the time had the guts to kill off its captain? Also, the drawn-out death of the crusty old coot, who was called Okita in the Space Battleship Yamato incarnation of Star Blazers, is something you don't expect to see in an animated show from that era, even one that was made for adults like the original incarnation of Star Blazers (animation is taken more seriously in Japan than here in America).

Before Galactica and Edward James Olmos, there was Star Blazers and the Sea Captain from The Simpsons.
Griffin-Bacal Advertising, the ad agency that revamped Space Battleship Yamato for America, made several changes to the cartoon, including Americanizing the names of the heroes and their ship, removing raunchy comedic scenes in which IQ-9 the pervy robot sexually harasses female officer Nova and eliminating all references to sake, the favorite libation of goofy but competent medical officer Dr. Sado, who was renamed Dr. Sane (Sado was like a Japanese Foster Brooks, back when alcoholism was cute and funny). But Griffin-Bacal didn't tamper with Avatar's death. I'm still amazed that Griffin-Bacal didn't wuss out like Voltron, another American redubbing of an anime show, would later do in 1984 when it rewrote a heroic character's death in the original Japanese version as a long stay in the hospital.

While rewatching Star Blazers on Syfy, I noticed some elements haven't aged well--particularly the dated-looking animation, the lame attempts at comic relief and the sometimes stilted-sounding American redubs--and it's occasionally difficult to take Avatar seriously now because of his resemblance to the Sea Captain from The Simpsons. But Star Blazers, which, in its original incarnation, was an allegory for Japan's struggles to recover from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still holds up as a largely serious, pre-Galactica sci-fi drama about the costs of war. Its willingness to sacrifice Avatar is an example of how seriously the animated series took the subject of war (just as how the loss of Ned is an example of how far Game of Thrones will go to maintain the brutality of the Martin novels' milieu).

When I was six years old, I was disturbed by Star Blazers' flashback sequence of young Derek Wildstar's discovery of his parents' deaths from an alien bomb attack. It's a loss that fuels Wildstar's commitment to seeing the Argo's mission through as he inherits the captain's chair from his dying mentor Avatar. I've seen much more depressing and grisly images since that Star Blazers sequence, so when I rewatched it a few weeks ago, I didn't get choked up like I did when I was six, but the sight of Wildstar as a kid, alone and grieving in the rubble where his parents once stood, remains a powerful image.

Yamato's impact on Japanese viewers during moments like that flashback to the parents' deaths and Okita's deathbed scene is so immense that the series got the ultimate tribute in 2010 when director Takashi Yamazaki remade it as a $23.9 million, J.J. Abrams Star Trek-style live-action feature film (beating to the punch a mired-in-development-hell Star Blazers movie project that currently has Usual Suspects and Valkyrie screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie attached to it). In America, the series is nothing more than a cult favorite, so it's not surprising that hardly anybody recalled Avatar's demise when Game of Thrones lopped off Ned's head. Both televised seasons of Star Blazers (plus an additional season that never aired nationally like the previous two and is the only season I've never seen) are available on DVD and worth checking out if you're curious about why its fans are still gaga over the Argo's badass Wave Motion Gun (YouTube it) or if you're curious to see how a cartoon managed to get away with presenting grown-up images of wartime despair and sacrifice to American kids in the '70s and '80s. The decision by Griffin-Bacal and the series' American distributor Claster Television to not drastically alter Yamato's storylines is more admirable than what took place on their later military cartoon G.I. Joe, where the stories were so often watered-down and corny (in comparison to both Star Blazers and the Marvel comic book version of G.I. Joe) that its series tagline "A Real American Hero" should have been replaced with "Gee, Kids, Ain't War Fun?"

Now that's a line you'd never hear on either Star Blazers or Game of Thrones, where its most shocking episode conclusion yet is a Star Blazers-like way of saying "The stakes are high and no one's safe, not even the star of the show." God, I'm dying to see what happens this week.

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