Thursday, February 13, 2014

Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Uchu Kaizoku Kyputen Harokku; animated science-fiction action series, Japan, 1978; S: Rintaro, S: Makio Inoue, Akira Kamiya, Chiyoko Kawashima, Haruko Kitahama, Hidekatsu Shibata

In the year 2978, the human civilization is advanced, but humans became very lazy. When an alien race, made out exclusively of women, Mazone, led by Queen Rafflesia, decides to invade Earth since it considers it a second home, the people do not pay much attention, except self-exiled pirate Captain Harlock, who decides to save Earth with his spaceship Arcadia and a crew of 40 people, including Kei, Miime, Yattaran and the new member, Daiba, whose father was killed by the Mazone because he discovered what they are up to. The Mazone kidnap Maayu, a little girl who is friends with Harlock, in order to divert the pirate from Earth. However, Harlock manages to break to the mothership and defeat Rafflesia, who orders a retreat. The crew is disbanded and stay on Earth to rebuild it, while Harlock leaves for outer space.

Even though it enjoys a cult reputation, anime series "Space Pirate Captain Harlock" is today a rather dated and trippy extravaganza. For one, the story - even though it follows Leiji Matsomoto's success formula of an alien invasion of Earth - is poorly designed and filled with inconsistencies and irregularities: for instance, in episode 28, there is a neat tropical planet where hundreds of people live on. After the Mazone kill almost everyone, only two kids, aged about 10, are left alive at the beach. Instead of taking them with him, Harlock has the disasterous judgement to simply leave those two kids all alone on an isolated planet (!) because he trusts they will manage by themselves. In episode 31, one crucial character, engineer Tochiro, dies on the spaceship Arcadia and leaves his wife and baby behind. All is well and plausible, until Harlock's crew launches him into outer space - and all of a sudden his wife decides to follow the coffin with a spaceship (!), because she would rather be "by the side" of her dead husband in the depths of space than by her alive baby who is now without parents. The characters are also scarcely developed: Daiban is fleshed out in the opening 8 episodes when he wants revenge because the Mazone killed his father, only to spend the next 34 episodes just as an extra on the dock; the blond Kei is not given a better treatment, either; we do not find anything about Yattaran except that he likes to build models of ships or that Maji was once in a fake marriage with a Mazone woman...

Matsumoto's prediction of a sterile civilization is actually one of the stronger points - just replace the people's obsession with horse races in the story with the modern addiction to the Internet of social networks and you get a pretty good hint - but unfortunately, it was not elaborated as much as it could have been. Harlock is thus a symbol for the last remains of old tradion and the human spirit that survived from that apathy on Earth. It is difficult to build suspense when Harlock, using only one spaceship (!), fights with millions of Mazone soldiers on tens of thousands of spaceships and, of course, the enemies are all destroyed while his ship is left unscratched. Even the similar "Space Battleship Yamato" was much more even in handling such ploys. Likewise, it was a bad decision to make the Mazone exclusively an all woman species - thin, white skin and long green hair - since when Harlock's almost all man crew fights them, it trips clumsily into misogyny. As such, women are simply not worthy of opponents to the main hero. However, the story has that specific Japanese pathos - an honorable hero who is willing to sacrifice his life to save the world, no matter how much everyone despise him - which gives it certain charm and flair. A boy whose father was killed for knowing "too much", an alien threat to Earth, long, blond woman...All these elements were later assembled better in Matsumoto's magnum opus "Queen Millennia", where he spared us the cliches of Japanese invincibility and ponderous digressions and showed a more mature presentation of the story where the good and the bad guys were in a far more grey area and have no simple answers.



Christopher Sobieniak said...

At least you have this one a shot.

Marin Mandir said...

I know fans will probably going to blast me for this, but I simply think Matsumoto could have pulled this story much better. Harlock is cool and all, but too many plot points seemed uneven and unconnected. Queen Millennia, for instance, is Matsumoto greatest anime that I saw til today, you should check that jewel out.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

I'm more familiar with the 1980 movie "Galaxy Express 999" myself (also directed by Rintaro). I thought that was a decent film for consolidating what Matsumoto originally wrote into a concise story to work for a 2+ Hour feature.