Dec 21, 2009
Merridian (All reviews)
There is a reason this is considered to be one of the greatest anime series ever made. Take a healthy dose of outlaw vigilantism from the wild west, combine it with all your favorite pirate fantasy escapades, put it on a vaguely WWII-era stylized battleship, and set it in space. If you replace the six-shooter revolvers with plasma lasers that can double as rapiers, replace the battleship guns with ultra-powerful “pulsar cannons”, and replace the high seas and prevailing winds with gravitational anomalies and solar radiation, what will remain is about what you’ve got with Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Add one of the most endearing and enduring characters anime ever produced, and this is the series you’ll end up with. It even comes complete with a seemingly-unstoppable alien invasion, a lush back story to fill out the appropriate pacing measures, and a gunfight/dogfight/fistfight in nearly every episode!

The animation is surprisingly good for its time. You can certainly expect reuse of footage, along with sometimes-choppy transitions or movements, but it holds up fine today provided you’ve got an appreciation for older animation. There are some slight errors in how the cells are layered (one of which includes lights illogically going through Harlock’s slightly-transparent chest, for instance), but all of them are minor, brief, and they don’t interrupt the flow/continuity at all.

The story is classic. Perhaps typical of Leiji Matsumoto, the story is a hardcore adventure tale, taking all the aesthetics & themes of the wild west, high seas, and last frontier and blending them together into a wonderful story of loss, vengeance, desperation, and hope.

The directing is well-done for its time as well, though in some ways this shouldn’t be TOO much of a surprise (considering it was directed by none other than Rin Taro, who also directed another one of Matsumoto’s big-titles, the Galaxy Express 999 movie, among others). Framing techniques, contrast, use of forced perspective, and generally well-placed shots are used to wonderful affect; add to the table his proficient editing and it isn’t hard to see why he receives praise.

The soundtrack is easily one of the most memorable to date, bringing the atmosphere, writing, and directing into a cohesive whole with its western-style instrumentation and tone. It uses music to blend together the themes of hopelessness and despair with the constant heroism, lonesomeness, and melancholy that exemplify the tone of the series, as well as the crew of the Arcadia and the oppressors they fight against.

So… why a 9 instead of a 10? To be honest, it was a tough call to make. In fairness, I believe that it deserves the 10 for its time, however, even by today’s somewhat retro-standards, I think there were a few things that it “could have done better”. The characters, while perfectly suited to their setting, atmosphere, and interactions, will fail to live up to many audiences’ ‘modern’ standards of development. The story may come off as contrived to some, possibly two-dimensional with only a few remarkable plot twists to others. The way the narrative takes its time fleshing out its history may cause some to complain about its pace. And of course there are the rather dated issues of character models, backgrounds, and general animation quality. I personally believe that these things are not “faults” or “failings” of the show at all; rather, I think they simply serve to highlight how well the show sculpted an epic narrative out of the varying resources, tools, and ideals it had at its disposal.

The 10 it deserves implies that nearly everyone will enjoy this title, which sadly isn’t true. It’s dated qualities will no doubt turn many away, and it’s superficially two-dimensional story may ward off those unwilling to see some of the more subtle things going on under the surface. It has aged surprisingly well in spite of this, however, or perhaps because of it—Captain Harlock’s determined, stoic, resourceful, courageous, and only slightly brooding character has been impersonated, regurgitated, and repeated many times at this point, but even when this archetype is reiterated well, it always fails to live up to the original. Harlock is one of a kind, and Space Pirate Captain Harlock is similarly one of a kind.