The seemingly endless afternoon I spent reading an Anime encyclopedia a few months ago did not only provide me with more insight on glorified child pornography than I would have ever imagined: it also displayed a mysterious picture of a woman under the title "Queen Emeraldas." Somehow fascinated by a few passages describing the Leijiverse, I spent some time researching Leiji Matsumoto on the internet and eventually ended up seeing Captain Harlock. I approached this, by comparison to most other anime, antiquity with high expectations. It turned out to differ quite fundamentally from my personal vision of warfare and human drama, but by no means did it disappoint me. In this review I explain why.
After a quick narration that introduces earth, which has developed for 900 years from our time into a state of apathy and corruption, the story initiates with a form of episodic nature. The protagonist captain Harlock finds himself in trouble every time he visits Mayu, the daughter of one of his past comrades. As he is an outlaw, the prime minister on earth is determined to use Mayu in order to trap the infamous space pirate, but fails each time. Meanwhile we're introduced to other characters who eventually come to complement the crew on Arcadia; Harlock's space ship.
The story takes its time to pick up, but by the time you grow attached to the characters and the real point of the narration reveals itself, watching the show turns into an addiction. As an extraterrestrial race attempts to invade earth, Harlock and his crew sets out to protect the very planet they've abandoned. Known as the Mazone, their enemies engage in psychological and biological warfare in the name of their beloved but merciless queen Rafflesia. Turbulent space battles are combined with a profound sense of melancholia in an epic adventure that reaches admirable heights of quality. It relies more heavily on characterization than plot progression, but with plenty of twists up its sleeve, the story of Captain Harlock quickly leaves behind its initially boring episodes and blasts off towards awesomeness.
Though not below standard for its time, Captain Harlock is still unable to reach equal heights of splendor when it comes to animation that contemporary contestants like Rose of Versailles and Mobile Suit Gundam did. Movement tends to be awkward and the numbers of mistakes you find throughout the series are far too many to list. Admittedly though, the character designs of Leiji Matsumoto are what make the show stand out. Minor characters are usually subdued to a state of cartoonism but Harlock and other various noble characters we meet later on are somewhat detailed and well made. Women tend to have long beautiful hair and slender bodies and overall there's something unique over the proportions and the eyes of the characters that the otherwise poor animation benefits heavily from.
Unfortunately, the space battles are unable to reach compelling levels as the animation does not allow that to happen. This is not a particularly big loss as the primary focus on the show lies within the characters and dialogue. It might put some people off though.
The soundtrack is equipped with a large variety of instruments and several songs designed specifically to fit the content of the story. As such, the opening theme is a direct reference to Harlock's dedication to protect earth despite its corrupted state.
A usual occurrence is that the characters themselves grab an instrument to play in a sudden state of melancholia. Whether it's Mayu playing on her ocarina or the mysterious extraterrestrial female Miime diligently using her harp, it's an interesting thing to see such a large portion of the soundtrack comprised of their melodies. Another memorable scene is when Harlock and his crew (SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERSPOILER) face to face. Mysterious voices that reminded me of Suspiria dominated the soundtrack at that moment and truly emphasized what mysterious creatures the Mazone are.
Voice acting deserves some praise as well, in particular that of Captain Harlock.
I realized it sooner than I thought, but during the 42 episodes I fell in love with the characters. Somewhat detailed characterization is a very big priority in the show, and most of the crewmembers aboard the Arcadia get their moments under the spotlight in the form of monologues or flashbacks. United by their inability to find their places in life on earth, as well as their common enemy, they all have harrowing stories of sorrow and agony to tell. Perhaps most memorable among the crewmembers is the mysterious and melancholic Miime. As the sole survivor of her kind she suffers from a grand feeling of alienation and loneliness. She swears to follow the man who saved her (Harlock) whether he chooses to roam the sea of space throughout the remainder of his life or venture deep into the pits of hell.
Even amongst the vicious Mazone there are several interesting characters to follow; Queen Rafflesia being the most prominent one. Bewildered over Harlock's dedication to protect the very earth he despises she tries hard to understand her enemy. We also get to witness her initially prideful and strong persona undergo a gruesome metamorphosis to the point of desperation and cruelty. The one thing that's for sure though is that Leiji Matsumoto remains somewhat neutral in his depiction of humans and the Mazone. He makes sure to emphasize both virtues and corruption on both opposing sides, and even though the Mazone in general are depicted as malicious, their actions and feelings succeed at generating sympathy.
It only hints the grandeur within the Leijiverse, but Captain Harlock is a rewarding experience not only because of the excellent and loveable characters, but also thanks to its well applied soundtrack and narration. It also introduces a character whom I know little of, but who I find absolutely fascinating, a woman named Emeraldas who seems to be a female equivalent of Harlock. There's still a long way to go but I plan to continue exploring the Leijiverse, and hopefully I'll have the time and energy to review other titles as well.
Spaceship Yamato, season 4 … aka Captain Harlock. Leiji Matsumoto’s most famous work is basically him improving his Yamato formula even further, which is a nice thing. Yamato itself was improving in each season but the problem was I didn’t care at all about its heroes as much as I did for Dessler the recurring villain, and the comic relief robot Analyzer, who got shelved after the first season. Simply said, the protagonists were too goody and perfect for the average viewer to identify with for long, while the setting itself was too simplistic to care. So ok, bad aliens attack good Earth, perfect Yamato crew goes to fetch some super weapon by some far away planet to fight back… three times. Although the cast was getting greyer and livelier as the seasons went by, the story never had much variation so you ended up bored after awhile.
So here comes Harlock to boost the interest again by making Earth a place full of lazy, selfish, bored, gutless, bureaucratic capitalists, rotting away in the hollow pleasures of technology, without ever having improved their manners or mentality to hate, mock, and be afraid of anything different. The protagonist is in fact a space pirate, who pretty much got fed up with all this pointless conformitism, boards his most awesome scull themed spaceship and goes to live free as a bird in the vast regions of space.
At this point one already feels a much more exciting setting and characters than in Yamato. Or hell, than any other anime that preceded Harlock. For the first time in a mainstream series, Earth is not presented as an earthly paradise, full of perfect people, endless green forests and ecology friendly advanced cities. It is in fact presented as this shithole, full of idiots, living like ants in industrialized cities full of smog and grey colors. And the protagonist is finally not some who tries to protect the status quo from aliens who want to take over Earth and turn it to some hellish place. Because, duh, it already is.
Not that there aren’t any aliens in the series. Hell no, they keep invading Earth and every time they conquer it quite easily because the Earth military is useless. I mean, they always were useless in all anime but here you actually get to see them snoring, yawning, eating sausages and running around like scared chickens. Also, some of the aliens are actually somewhat sympathetic and even excuse their invasion to Earth as “we want to protect nature before you ruin everything” or something as understandable as “hey, you are a bunch of gutless idiots and we have superior technology so we have all the reason to conquer you.”
So here comes the familiar part where Harlock comes to the rescue and shows what a complicating figure he is. On one hand he despises the modern way of life on his planet and keeps looting cargo ships. On the other hand he protects the Earth because he knows there are lots of good people amongst those idiots; some of which are even family. Down to it, he does what pleases him and not because he simply has the duty to protect his planet from aliens and make no questions about it. Which is very cool.
I must point out that Harlock is not the first “liberal” character in anime, whose only goal is living the way he likes. Many years prior to him there already was Lupin the Third, featuring a thief after lots of money and pretty women, while making an ass out of the useless police. The main difference is that anime was a superficial comedic adventure while this is a dramatic space opera, aiming to transmit moral messages and question your own beliefs in the comforts of modern lifestyle. In a way, it is still a hot topic even today. Which quality wise, it makes it better. And this is practically why I never reviewed Lupin; it’s nothing else but the first show with a liberal character and zany adventure and with zero overall plot or further analysis. I wouldn’t have anything to write about other than that; unlike of Harlock, with its multi-façade of situations.
As my next point in the analysis, I would like to address how technology ends up playing too much of an important role, which kinda overshadows any attempt at social criticism. I mean, the aliens have better technology and thus take over Earth and Harlock wins because his guns are bigger than the aliens. Plus his spaceship is made from a metal stronger than half a meter of reinforced Adamantium +5, which makes all battles one sided and thus boring. Jeez, this part is as stupid as in Yamato; it was also a ship that could never be destroyed. So yeah, they had animation restrictions and in order to reuse the same footage over and over they had to keep the spaceships look intact all the time. That still makes you feel like the battles are unfair. Hell, Harlock pretty much owns more dues ex hidden super attacks that his ship is simply not able to store them all.
And sure, the same thing can be said about any other sci-fi or mecha show as well; the good robots or spaceships would only shake with a hundred nukes while enemy ships would blow up with a single energy beam. But as I said in an earlier review, the more complicating a story is, the more justification it needs in order to be excused. There was no internal struggle in classical mecha shows like Mazinger or Getta Robo. The heroes were right, the villains were wrong; the outcome was clear. It didn’t have to go further than that but in the case of Harlock’s greyer world, this is actually a point of notice.
What I mean is that although on paper the ideology of the series is very intriguing, especially at the time it was made, it still lacks complete realism and practical justification. Harlock is not right because his anarchic way of life is better than Earth’s or the aliens’. He just has infinite hit points and lands critical hits with 99% probability. Thank you very much; we should be glad he doesn’t feel like raping women or blowing up planets for fun.
Another thing that is constant in all of Leiji’s works is the grim atmosphere of the world. Everything looks so dark and dead and hopeless, but the heroes keep fighting for a better future, which is also the main grip of his works. I on the other hand was never fond of all this depressing, gloomy, tearful settings, despite the fact I admit they are more interesting than the average retro mecha. It just feels like I’m supposed to feel bad about my style of life, when in fact I was just 12 the first time I watched the series and my world was still full of joy and rainbows. But I understand that the worldview of the series is a lot closer to the Japanese people, whose country was devastated during WW2 and their way of life was drastically changed from traditional agriculture to this grim capitalistic industry of today. So ok, I guess it appeals a lot more to them than to me, who found the whole fuss back then to be too melodramatic for no reason. I was just expecting for some good action to come along and all I got was these one-sided skirmishes. So yeah, of course I didn’t like it when I was just 12.
My image of Leiji’s works has improved now but that still does not excuse those dreadful character designs of his. I mean why does he always draw old people and cats so horribly bad? Are they supposed to be comical or sympathetic this way? I hated them! I couldn’t even stare at them! Harlock and his personal harem look great with those eye patches and war scars and funky hairstyles. And then next to him come these lame simplistic caricatures and make you wonder if they even belong to the same species. I have read how this is an optical trick to point out how strong his importance and ideals are, while all the rest are just pointless extra meant to fade by comparison. Well ok, I still don’t like it.
Overall, this is a great improvement over Yamato and any other setting in anime up to then but it still has lots of things to facepalm at. The battles are still not exciting since the ships are indestructible and the overall story despite its more complicating nature is not really worth so many episodes per season. There was still room for improvement…
BTW, the current holder of this sort of story is One Piece. It also has pirates who also want to live a free life, also fight against the authorities, and always end up protecting the world from megalomaniacs. Plus, old people and cats don’t look horrible and the setting is not making you all emo inside.