Captain Harlock

Review by Tim Eldred

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Being a Captain Harlock fan can be uniquely challenging. Few characters are more instantly engaging when you first lay eyes upon them, and also more difficult to get a grip on. Just when you think you know him, his franchise takes another left turn, and after a while you just fall back on the first impression. That’s sort of the case with most Leiji Matsumoto creations.

In 2013, Matsumoto celebrated his 60th anniversary as a creator of manga and anime. Born in 1938, he published his first illustrated book as a teenager, and after dabbling in every storytelling genre under the sun, he gradually carved out his own niche in the world of Japanese comics. His triple-threat penchant for WWII machinery, spaceships, and perennial underdogs made him THE go-to source for hyper-imaginative SF featuring hard-luck characters and technological metaphors. Deeper meanings are entirely up to the reader.

Mr. Matsumoto also enjoys dancing around what he calls his “Ring of Time,” an imaginary construct that allows him to revisit characters over and over again with little care for continuity. This is what makes every iteration of Captain Harlock incompatible with almost every other iteration, and yet undifferentiated in the eyes of their creator. Matsumoto makes the claim from time to time that he’ll tie it all together one day, then continues to refract the jewel even further.

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harlock3Thus, the challenge of being a Captain Harlock fan: lured in by the undeniable cool of that first impression, you’ll soon find something you weren’t quite prepared for. This was writ large in the first anime TV series (Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Toei 1978) when young Tadashi Daiba steps onto the legendary spaceship Arcadia and finds it populated by misfits, lushes, and layabouts – and a captain who seems utterly disconnected to it all. Until it counts, that is.

In our world, the different iterations of Harlock in manga and anime are those misfits. No matter how much you want them to fall in line, they each defy you in some way. The Space Pirate series is hobbled by crude animation. My Youth in Arcadia’s melodrama locks it firmly into the time it was made. The Endless Road SSX series approaches but never quite reaches its badass potential. Harlock Saga, Endless Odyssey, Gun Frontier, etc. all exist in their own bubbles, seemingly unaware of each other. There’s the manga, too, but it has yet to cross over into English.

This is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. When it counts in the story, the mutual self-interest of the Arcadia’s crew overcomes their anarchy, and their captain is elevated from an enigma to an unstoppable force of nature. And so it is when it counts in our world. Something keeps fans hooked. Space Pirate has a great story. My Youth in Arcadia has exquisite animation. SSX has fantastically memorable moments. And you don’t have to look too deep to find something likable in all the others. These are the parts whose sum adds up to a greater whole. And now we have a new movie that does the same.

Captain Harlock, the CG feature film, was released by Toei in September 2013, and I was proud to be in Tokyo on opening weekend. It’s standard operating procedure in Japan to release all the loot just ahead of a premiere, so I grabbed the soundtrack and art book on spec, then loaded up on trinkets at the theater gift shop. I made this leap of faith because all that stuff traded on the film’s strongest feature, the art design. Firmly founded upon the Matsumoto tradition, it pushes forward with enhancements that Matsumoto might have added himself if he still had something to prove. Instead, the task fell to the accomplished anime director Shinji Aramaki.

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Any experienced Harlock viewer will instantly recognize the roots and how the branches have been twisted into new configurations. Just about everything is bigger and heavier, including the drama. This Harlock is darker than all the previous incarnations with a twist in his past that makes him equal parts hero and villain – a man who did wrong things for the right reasons and now lives with ten tons of fate on his back. There is no grey area with this Harlock; he’s public enemy number one, and his enemies stretch far and wide. On the other hand, there are ample shades of grey among their number along with some other Matsumoto mainstays: psychological wounds, pathological obsessions, and completely impractical space weapons that must have exhausted entire planetary economies. Despite the title, the focal character isn’t Harlock, but a young man caught between these forces, and upon whose decisions everything turns.

Leiji Matsumoto has been vocal over his entire career about never allowing his characters to die, and gossip floated around prior to the film’s release that he was irate to learn that this cardinal rule wasn’t being followed in the script. I don’t intend to ruin anything for you by revealing which way the cards fall, but I do have to confess that my faith in the Leiji Matsumoto rulebook isn’t as unbending as it once was. Like the man himself, the work becomes increasingly habituated as the decades wear on, and there’s a point when shaking up some of the rules becomes necessary to keep things interesting.

And as we’ve seen, all the most interesting strides across the Leijiverse over the last twenty years have been driven by the involvement of others. From The Cockpit OAV series (1993) through Galaxy Railways (2003) and this new film, other artists and writers have consistently brought new flavors to the table and freshened up the meal. This Harlock is only as different from the previous takes as they were from each other, so no one needs to fret that undue liberties were taken. Whichever animated Arcadia you prefer (green or blue), I’ll agree with you that it would have been nice to see it unaltered on the big screen, but it would have been out of step with the overall aesthetic that drives the rest of the film, and in my opinion the tradeoff was worth it. Like the man in charge, this ship is darker and scarier, and the film benefits from its structural enhancements.

harlock_2Finally, the CG character animation is easily the best the big screen has to offer, building on all the lessons of Avatar, but stylish enough to avoid dipping into uncanny valley. While watching it, I found myself occasionally wishing the live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie had gone that way rather than employing actors who, even with their best efforts, could only approximate an anime character. With Harlock, the line between cel drawings and computer rendering is as thin as it gets, deftly avoiding the limitations a live actor would impose simply by being flesh and blood. And as gratifying as it was to see Yamato fight Gamilas in photo-realistic CG, the space battles in this film are so much bigger and the scale so much grander that they remind you there are still some things you haven’t seen before.

That’s what made Captain Harlock an attention-grabber in the first place, and by that reckoning this version couldn’t be more authentic.

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