Let me start off by saying that I love Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight. Absolutely love it. All those people in the world who call it one of the worst animated films of all time? Liars. Let me further preface that admission by freely admitting that I have no illusions as to the quality of Odin. It’s awful. Expensive, and lavishly animated, but awful. It’s bloated, needlessly long, often tedious, thinly characterized, nigh incomprehensible, and since the creators dreamed that it would be a Yamato-style series, it doesn’t even have an ending. Even if, like me, you are a fan of “old anime,” there’s a 99% chance that if you start Odin, you will never make it to the end (much like the filmmakers themselves). Odin is a completely pointless 140-minute disaster that you should avoid at all costs. Unless, that is, you happen to think like me.
The opening minutes of Odin set the tone for everything that is about to follow. If you don’t get the opening, then the rest of the movie isn’t going to be for you either. First, we get a brief recap of mankind’s various brave forays into exploring the oceans. OK, so far, so good. We see we’re going to get some pretty good artwork. Odin was, after all, a big budget affair. The action then shifts to the future, when mankind has taken to exploring the solar system in giant spaceships adorned with schooner-style sails which harness the power of a network of directional lasers that propel the ships back and forth across space. The idea of spaceships that look like old sailing ships is silly, but it’s got a nice old-school pulp feel to it; and anyway, one of my favorite series is about a steam engine locomotive that flies through space — and you can even put the windows down — so who am I to complain?
So far, nothing too odious (or Odinous — that’s right!). We get a brief look at the various space sailers. It’s all set to snappy Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra style music like you got in his score for Chariots of the Gods, which is fitting (this movie had as many composers as it had writers and directors). Then a transport shuttle lands on one of the giant sailers, the ramp opens, and one of the characters steps out, points toward…the future, perhaps…and yells, “GO!!!” And that’s when Odin begins to earn its reputation.
A song from the ’80s Japanese glam metal band Loudness soars majestically across the soundtrack, like a great eagle of pure metal unfurling wings formed from the power chords of one of those pointy, angular guitars. The crew of the space sailer, obviously invigorated by the fist-pumping anthemic rock music, stream out of the transport shuttle, running energetically and giving each other high-fives. And I don’t mean they’re walking at a crisp clip or jogging. They’re hauling ass Jesse Owens style, full-speed sprinting enthusiastically up and down ramps, joyously climbing access ladders, and triumphantly situating themselves at control consoles. They are just that gung-ho to be aboard the Space Photon Sailer Starlight. There is more running, more high-fiving, and lots of sweeping, panning shots of the exterior of the ship. Then, it all keeps on going. And going. For the entire length of the song. Amid the ecstasy and unbridled “Yeah, A-Number One Aces!” excitement of the boarding process, a solitary figure rides a glass elevator to the tip of one of the sails and places his hand contemplatively against the glass window, staring off into the distance.
How you are going to feel about the rest of Odin depends largely on how you react to five minutes of guys running through spaceship corridors, giving each other high fives and basically handling the whole thing like they’re the champion team running out onto the field for the big game while Loudness plays. If this is the sort of thing that has you rolling your eyes and checking your watch, or eying the fast forward button, then let me give you a word of advice: just fast forward to the end credits, because this sequence is pretty much as good as it gets. There’s nothing more exciting or logical beyond this point. This whole boarding sequence operates as sort the Dante-esque warning sign posted at the gates of Hell. Abandon all hope, ye who watch any more of Odin.
If, however, you react to this sequence in much the same way as the characters on screen, then it’s safe to continue. Frankly, this entire ludicrous intro does indeed make me want to run at full speed down the hall, high-fiving my co-workers and shouting, “Yeah!” over and over. If you are tired of brooding space pirates or dystopic futures, then all you need to do is watch these goofballs sprint up and down space ramps while listening to Loudness. From this moment on, I’m going to assume that all space vessel boarding is conducted in this fashion. This is how they boarded the Apollo capsules, and the only reason Japan has never sent a man to the moon is because their astronauts are too tired after a hard day of cheering and running. If we could get a glimpse at the International Space Station right now, you know what we’d see? That’s right. They’d be running up and down the cramped corridors, high-fiving each other, shouting, “Da, comrade!” and pressing their palms contemplatively against the portholes.
Now that my description of the sequence has gone on nearly as long as the sequence itself, we can continue. Oh wait, no we can’t because all that running and jumping for joy is followed immediately by a lengthy launch sequence in which we get to see the characters fiddle dials and press blinking lights while the movie indulges in another long parade of “fly-by” footage in and around the spaceship. Suddenly, that fly-by sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t looking so bad, is it folks? This goes on for quite a spell, until we finally get the photon laser thing fired up and the Starlight sails gloriously forth toward…the moon? Seriously? All this, and they’re only going to the moon? In an age in which giant clipper ships ply the spaceways, does taking a shake-down cruise to the moon really justify all the high-fives and endless sweeping shots of the spaceship? Oh well, at least the journey is underway and we can now relax and get down to some serious action.
Except that we can’t, because en route to the moon, the Starlight picks up a mayday call from a ship in the asteroid belt near Jupiter. Now why the hell would any ship fly through an asteroid belt in the first place? Didn’t they watch Empire Strikes Back? Well, the Starlight captain decides to respond to the SOS, even though they’re only five minutes out of space dock and there must be closer ships if the laser highways are as crowded as the movie claims. But then one of the characters — some of them have names, but they’re token nods toward organization more than they are significant elements of the story, since there are really only two characters in the whole movie (“young gun” and “old salt”) — announces they can use the gravity isolator engine (or some such device — the made-up pulp sci-fi jargon flies with gleeful abandon in this film) and be there lickety split. If you’re guessing this results in another overly lengthy “preppin’ the engines” sequence, you’d be on target. When they announced that the time until the engine could be used was seventy minutes, I was afraid they were going to really show us seventy minutes of guys fiddling with knobs and blinking lights and yelling out things like, “Phase induction coupling coil MX37 GO!!!”
While all this is happening, space cadet fighter pilot Akira (he embodies the “young gun” characters) decides that it wasn’t fair of the International Space Agency to flunk him out of Starlight service school just because he punched a superior officer in the nose. So he steals a long-distance space fighter (we know it is such because this movie labels pretty much every action and piece of technology with handy captions, so you can learn to recognize Gravity Isolation Sailing when it happens), buzzes the Starlight, and demands to be let on board. This act would be, I presume, punishable by death in many militaries, but in the Odin universe, all it does is make everyone smile and proclaim that having Akira on board might be good for a laugh. Not only do they let him on board, but they pretty much turn over control of the ship to him within minutes of his arrival.
Eventually, the ship gets to the asteroid belt and searches the wreckage of a passenger cruiser that was obliterated by a mysterious destroyer, which appears soon enough and is assessed to be of a mysterious alien origin. As mankind has yet to discover evidence of any extra-terrestrial life in the Odinverse, this would seem to be a pretty big deal, even if it is a heavily-armed battle cruiser with a tendency to blow the crap out of anything it comes across. The Starlight discovers a single survivor from the slaughter — a beautiful young girl, luckily enough, because what fun would it have been to discover a fat old crone smoking a corncob pipe and prone to uncontrollable bouts of mixed cackling and phlegmy coughing? Actually, yeah, that would have been pretty fun. While investigating the mysterious cruiser, the Starlight crew accidentally triggers its self-destruct mechanism, apparently by lightly touching the surface of the ship. So it is a vast, heavily armored battle cruiser boasting advanced alien technology, seemingly impervious to all weapons of human design, but you can destroy it by touching it.
The short-comings of this battle cruiser don’t matter much though, because once they pick up the girl, the cruiser is forgotten. No inquiry is ever made as to its origins or what it was doing hanging out in the asteroid belt blowing things up. If there was ever any explanation at all of what this ship was supposed to be, I must have blinked while they were making it. Was this supposed to be a ship from the soon-to-be-introduced Odin? We never see anything like it again, and no one sees fit to ever go, “Oh yeah, we should warn people about deadly alien destroyers that explode when you touch them.” Who can be bothered, when there’s corridors to run down and knobs to scream motivational slogans at?
The exploding battleship sends the Starlight’s seamen shooting toward Uranus, where the girl they picked up guides them to a UFO crash sight. Yes, if nothing else, Odin gives you ample opportunity for childish Uranus and seamen jokes. Make them, otherwise you’re not going to have much else to do. Some special computer crystals (luckily, all computer systems in the entire universe, regardless of whether they are terrestrial or alien in nature, run on the same type of storage medium — an advanced form of Zip Disk, I believe) and the fractured memories of the girl (named Sarah Cyanbaker, “Cyanbaker” being an ancient Norse name meaning, “Maker of neon blue breads”) point the Starlight in the direction of Odin, a mythical planet from which, the movie postulates, ancient astronauts departed en route to becoming the first humans, or Norse gods. Something like that.
The subsequent discovery of a space warp point makes traveling to Odin a possibility, but the old salt Captain and his old salt cronies receive orders to return to space dock, assess the situation, and prepare for a proper expedition to unexplored and potentially hostile distant space. And they might possibly also mention all this newfound evidence of life on other planets to the International Space Agency. Upset by this brief flirtation with some sort of logic and responsibility, the cheering young crew takes Akira’s advice and stages a mutiny, taking the ship in search of Odin and locking the senior officers in the mess hall where, predictably enough, the old farts all smile to themselves and are pleased that their crew has mutinied and taken an untested ship on its maiden voyage through a warp point toward a portion of the universe thousands of light years from the edge of explored space, without proper provisions, armaments, or training. Once again, behavior punishable by death is greeted with sly smiles, back slapping, and “Oh, to be young again!” nonchalance.
When the Starlight is set upon by vicious robot defenders almost immediately after exiting warp, you can’t help but think they got what they deserved. It turns out that the robots are the last vestiges of life on Odin, an automatic defense system commanded by an acid trip hallucination of a guy named Asgard that has gone insane over the eons and decided to wage war on all organic life (ironically, in this movie, Odin is a place and Asgard is a person). Now that the Starlight has popped through the warp point, the machines decide to backtrack and destroy life on earth as well. For his act of mutiny and potentially destroying all life on earth, Akira is congratulated and put in charge of figuring out how to best their mechanized enemies, leading to a laser-studded orgy of animated violence as the crew of the Starlight zap this and that, fly around, and when they need that extra push toward victory, insert their Loudness 8-track into the Starlight’s hi-fi system.
Really, where to begin with this movie?
How about the ending, which doesn’t exist? Apparently thinking that this was going to be a hugely successful movie that would immediately spawn sequels, the film concludes with a dying captain (oh come on — that’s no spoiler) telling his mutinous young crew to venture forth and continue the quest for Odin, for surely the machines are not all that is left of that ancient civilization that may or may not have given birth to mankind (despite all evidence to the contrary and the fact that a dying Odinite even says, “this is all that remains of our culture”). We then get a few more shots of the Starlight, then fade to…a Loudness music video??? Oh, come on! A two hours and twenty minute running time, and we don’t even get an ending? And what’s more, the Loudness video, for the song “Searching for Odin” (the main lyrics of which seem to be a soaring power ballad chorus repeating “Searching for Odin, my love!”), is cheaply shot on video and is just of the band standing in some mist. At their liveliest, I think the guitarist does that power ballad thing where he lightly taps one foot and sort of sways back and forth as he stares off into the distance. You know the stance. Every metal dude does it. But I demand more from Loudness. They’re not even rockin’ out or running around and giving high-fives to each other.
So basically, the entire 140 minutes you just spent watching Odin was for nothing. I would have even been satisfied if they just popped up a screen that said, “And then they found Odin and it was awesome…but that is another tale!” But we don’t even get that, because this movie was a thunderous flop for which no sequel was ever made. It’s the Megaforce of anime — a huge undertaking, using a wealth of talent and money, meant to become an endearing blockbuster that defines a generation, but instead gets relegated to the ranks of bad movie punchline.
It seems like an hour of this movie is padded out by gratuitous fly-bys or pointless action. Everything in Odin takes twice as long to explain as it should, and there’s never any real pay-off for any of this time. One sequence finds the Starlight stranded in a negative energy nebula, or something like that, from which escape is impossible. After lots of talking and repairing (don’t worry — the Repair Boats are labeled when they appear on screen, so you will know when repairs are taking place — I sure wish they’d labeled things like “Energetic Corridor Running” and “Space Photon Mutiny”), they just use a special engine and fly out, no harm done and no point to it except to increase the running time. And after leading a lengthy and involved assault on a computer brain, Akira and his team return and announce, “that was just a communication conduit; now we have to destroy the actual computer brain,” and we have to watch the whole thing all over again. That said, though, the final assault on the computer brain fortress is pretty good stuff, with slick looking robots, giant tanks, and bazooka lasers.
There are, as mentioned earlier, no real characters to speak of other than Akira and the salty old captain. And Sarah, I guess, but her only character trait is to wander onto the bridge from time to time and announce that they should find Odin. That, or she simply falls to her knees and screams, “Odinnnnnnn!!!” They pay lip service to differentiating the crew but really, everyone is on board to cheer and die heroically, and you won’t remember the name of a single one of them, except maybe “Boatswain.” And none of the deaths mean much of anything, not just because the characters are so poorly fleshed out, but because there’s practically no point to anything that happens in this movie, especially when you consider the ending.
To the film’s credit, the artwork is beautiful. It’s a great example of eighties tech design at its best. The Starlight looks cool (and believe me, they give you plenty of chances to look at it), and the art is rich and detailed and interesting. It’s obvious that they spent all their money on art and design, and then realized after the fact that they better drum up some kind of script. Said script comes to us courtesy of Yoshinobu Nishizaki (also the producer), Kazuo Kasahara, and Toshio Masuda. Three people? It took three people to write this incoherent mess? None of these jokers were novices. Kazuo had been screenwriting since the late 1950s, including penning some of Japan’s best-known features, such as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films — not that those qualify you for a coherency award. He was director Fukasaku’s go-to writer, though, having penned not only the Battles movies, but also Cops vs Thugs, Yakuza Graveyard, and Renegade Ninjas. They’re all good, fun films, but once again, the cord that binds them together is that half the time you have no idea what the hell is going on. You can definitely see the influence of his shotgun approach to characters and audience comprehension in the script for Odin.
Similarly, Toshio Masuda was an experienced director and writer by the time Odin blemished his resume. He wrote and directed the superb Nikkatsu action film Velvet Hustler in 1967, the totally crackpot Last Days of Planet Earth, then became a writer and director for the Space Battleship Yamato series (aka Star Blazers), a series with an obvious influence on Odin.
But if anyone is to be blamed for Odin, it’s writer/producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, whose brain child this abomination was. It’s his fault that the movie has three (possibly four) writers and three directors (including Takeshi Shirado and Eiichi Yamamoto, both veterans of Yamato), which is always a recipe for disaster. That’s just too many conflicting visions and egos. You may also notice that there’s a lot of people from Space Battleship Yamato popping up in the credits of Odin. You may further notice that the plot, what of it there is, of Odin doesn’t sound too far from the plot of Yamato — a spaceship that looks like an old ship plying the stars in search of a legendary planet. In fact, Nishizaki’s first job as writer, director, and producer was with the Yamato series, a concept he dreamed up then turned over to Leiji Masumoto to bring to life. When Yamato’s guiding light left the series to pursue other ideas (specifically, Captain Harlock), Nishizaki did his best to keep the franchise limping along, but it was obvious from the precipitous plunge in quality that he was no Leiji Masumoto and that the series was sinking faster than the actual battlehsip Yamato.
Having sullied the name of Yamato, Nishizaki decided to strike out in a bold new direction with Blue Noah, a show about a spaceship created out of an old submarine, which must journey to a mysterious destination. When Blue Noah crashed and burned, Nishizaki dreamed up Odin. Or rather, he retooled his original Yamato idea for the third time, assuming that he was going to have a movie so cool that people wouldn’t even remember Yamato. It didn’t really work out that way. Odin sank at the box office and only resurfaced in the guise of a “so bad you won’t believe it” fascination. Weep not for Nishizaki, however. Never one to stay down for long, he rebounded from the failure of Odin by developing another new idea, one that actually wasn’t about spaceships shaped like old seagoing vessels. That creation — lovingly known in the United States as Legend of the Overfiend — did have the elements present that it needed to become, you know, somewhat memorable.
All that said, I love Odin. And not ironically, and not just because it’s bad. I really enjoy the hell out of it. I mean, make no mistake — this is everything that can go wrong with a movie, all going wrong in one gloriously preposterous embarrassment. Odin is a wreck. It’s also an endearing throwback to the heady days of anything-goes pulp science fiction and broadly-painted space opera. Make-believe future technology appears and disappears at the drop of the hat; characters are crudely written in the most obvious strokes, relying on your simply accepting them for what they are (laser fodder, mostly) without ever learning anything but generic things about them (they enjoy heavy metal music and like to high five each other); entire situations are built up in fine detail only to be abandoned; hair-brained attempts at philosophy and theology fly fast and furious and never come together to form an even remotely cohesive thematic tapestry. Odin plays out like a long-running, crudely written episodic serial, one that the author dashes off in a couple hours and then promptly forgets until he has to write the next installment, which may or may not connect very well to what little he remembers of what he wrote for the last installment. And then, the whole thing gets cancelled before he ever writes the ending.
I’ve read slapdash novels from the 1940s that feel similar to Odin. And I love them for the same largely inexplicable reasons I love Odin. It’s pure pulp, and pure pulp always delights me, even when it’s bad and feels like its being made up on the fly. Yes, there are good pulp stories, and great pulp stories, and it’s a shame that so much of what’s bad about pulp writing has become what’s most strongly identified with pulp writing. It’s a real artistic tragedy, blah blah, and I don’t care. I’d still rather watch Odin than many other movies which are obviously much better (and much worse — MD Geist, I’m looking in your direction). I can’t in good faith say you should check Odin out unless you are likely to garner entertainment from such an ambitious piece of junk. I’d say that shearing it of thirty minutes would make it a leaner, better movie, but the American release does just that and emerges as even more incoherent and boring than the lengthier original — plus, I think they cut the Loudness video that substitutes in place of an ending, so you don’t even have that to look forward to. So make of that what you will. The vast majority of people will find Odin to be tedious at best, and likely very nearly intolerable. Me? Odin is so good that it makes me want to run down the hallway, high five Nishizaki, and watch the whole thing over again. Like the crew of the Photon Space Sailer Starlight, I’m always going to be “searching for Odin, my love!”