The 1970s are considered by some to be the golden age of space opera in Japanese manga and anime, with classics such as the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato being created during this period. Space Pirate Captain Harlock was one of the standout titles of the era, and would go on to inspire many other works of fiction in one way or another, even to this day.
Conceived by award-winning manga artist Leiji Matsumoto (who, incidentally, was also the creator of Space Battleship Yamato), Harlock’s story has since been retold several times over the past 3 decades in various forms, and after nearly 40 years(!), it’s about time that we finally got a full-length blockbuster CG feature film starring the legendary space pirate.
You’d think that a film entitled Space Pirate Captain Harlock would have the titular character as the protagonist. I mean, who else could it be, right?
You’d be wrong. It’s not really about him, at least not in the way you’d expect it to be. But believe it or not, this is actually a good thing.
Welcome to Arcadia
Right from the start of the film, the viewer is thrust into the shoes of a young man named Yama, and the story is largely told from his perspective. After a brief bit of narrative exposition and a series of unlikely events, Yama ends up as the latest addition to the crew of Harlock’s notorious flagship, the Arcadia.
Fans of the classic Space Pirate Captain Harlock may find this storytelling technique familiar. In the original series, Matsumoto fleshed out his story and characters through the eyes of Tadashi, also a junior newcomer to the Arcadia’s crew. In doing so, Matsumoto provided a surrogate character through whom he could introduce readers to the fascinating universe that he had created.
This was a stroke of genius on the part of Matsumoto, and now director Shinji Aramaki and his screenwriters have taken a similar approach with the character of Yama. A big-budget feature film like this needs to appeal to a broad audience, and while longtime fans of Space Pirate Captain Harlock surely need no introduction, a whole new generation of viewers may have never heard of the infamous spacefaring outlaw.
As such, Yama essentially personifies these viewers as a newcomer to the Space Pirate Captain Harlock universe, and as he learns more about the ship, it’s crew, it’s history, and it’s enigmatic captain, so does the audience.
But there’s more to it than just that; by taking Harlock himself out of the spotlight for the first half of the film, the titular character retains his air of mystery and dark intensity. Harlock’s appearances during the early parts of the movie are deliberately limited to a shadowy, brooding presence in the background in a few scenes. He barely talks, and even when he does, he gets to the point in a terse and direct manner. You most definitely won’t be hearing any cheesy inspirational speeches coming out of Harlock’s mouth in this movie.
The character of Harlock was always meant to be a larger-than-life figure, and his crew afford him the reverence and respect he rightfully deserves. It is precisely due to his initially-restrained screen presence that Aramaki has managed to bring out the essence of Harlock’s character. By the time Harlock’s first major action sequence rolls around, it instantly drives home one simple fact: This man is not to be trifled with.
Seeing Harlock in action is akin to a big payoff after months of discreet and thoughtful planning. Yama spends his initial time on the Arcadia wondering just what the big deal is about this particular space pirate, and uninitiated viewers will likely feel the same way. So when Harlock finally cuts loose and shows Yama (and by extension, the audience) just how powerful he really is and what he is capable of, the impact is greatly amplified and elevates his character to a near-mythical status almost immediately.
With Harlock being depicted as a nigh-invincible and unstoppable force of nature, it helps to have a relatable and (somewhat) down-to-earth character like Yama to keep the audience firmly grounded. While he serves as the audience’s connection to the film, the character of Yama is far from a blank slate. His motivations are unclear in the beginning, but without giving away too much, let’s just say that he has a deeply personal reason to join Harlock’s crew, and this is gradually revealed over the course of the 2-hour movie.
All Hands On Deck
A film can’t be all climatic sequences, and since any substantial appearance by Harlock generally implies that some serious badassery is about to occur, the movie is mostly carried by the excellent supporting cast.
Senior crew members Yattaran and Kei get their time in the limelight with their own moments of brilliance, and the ethereal presence of Mimay, the last of the Nibelung race (who built the advanced technology that powers the Arcadia), serves to bring out another side of Harlock’s personality – unlike everyone else on board the ship, she addresses the captain as an equal, and is also the only one who knows anything about Harlock’s tragic past.
If there is one element of weak characterization in Space Pirate Captain Harlock, it would be that of the villains. Harlock and his crew, branded as outlaws, are going head-to-head against the corrupt Gaia Sanction, which is essentially the governmental body of all mankind. However, aside from the standout character of Praefectus Isora, who personally leads the Gaia fleet into battle against the Arcadia, the rest of the Gaia Sanction might as well be faceless caricatures.
While I wouldn’t necessarily refer to them as evil, the Gaia Sanction epitomizes the textbook trope of “creepy old politicians sitting around a table plotting sinister deeds”. You know nothing about any of them, and they pull out just about every possible cliche to justify their grandiose schemes. On the other hand, Isora comes across as an driven, yet tormented man with a firm set of beliefs; a mirror of Harlock minus the incredible power, if you will. Having Isora as the primary antagonist would have been a definite improvement.
A View To A Kill
Writing and characterization aside, let’s not forget that this is a Shinji Aramaki film, and the mere promise of high-quality art direction and adrenaline-pumping action cinematography from the director of Appleseed would be more than enough to get a fair bit of people interested in this movie.
And they certainly should be! Space Pirate Captain Harlock is pure eye-candy from start to finish. Despite the somber and serious nature of the film, there is beauty to be found everywhere. The dark, muted colors of the Arcadia are a sharp contrast to the bright, sleek, and almost clinical aesthetics of the Gaia Sanction warships, reflecting the differences in ideology in a not-so-subtle way.
I’d go so far as to say that the Arcadia is the real star of the show here; Harlock’s flagship oozes personality, constantly wreathed in black smoke and dazzling the audience with it’s sheer number of moving parts. This incarnation of the Arcadia would feel right at home in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with it’s gothic, foreboding design that is clearly intended to instill dread in the enemy.
The space combat sequences are a marvel to behold, and Aramaki has clearly taken inspiration from seaborne naval battles; warships circle each other and exchange powerful broadside barrages, and in a homage to the original anime that is bound to please longtime fans, look out for scenes of the Arcadia ramming it’s opponents head-on!
Facial modelling and animation techniques have certainly come a long way since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and characters look incredibly realistic, if a little too perfect at times. Some artistic license was inevitably taken during the transition of these beloved characters from 2D to 3D, but the end result is simply gorgeous.
Combined with the amazing costume designs, fight choreography, and brilliant cinematography, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is a visual spectacle that can absolutely hang with the best that Hollywood has to offer.
The Final Verdict
Although it may contain references to previous depictions of the titular character, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is a self-contained film that modernizes a 37-year-old story for a contemporary audience. One needs no knowledge of the original in order to enjoy what is essentially a new and different take on an ageless classic.
The story and characterization has gotten a little darker, the lightheartedness has been drastically reduced, and the aesthetics have been massively upgraded via means of modern technology. While some longtime fans might not appreciate the shift in tone, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is still, at it’s core, an exhilarating space adventure like no other. Strap yourselves in, and be prepared for one hell of a ride!
Space Pirate Captain Harlock will be shown exclusively at Shaw Theatres in Singapore from 17th July, and will also be released on Netflix in the US on 1st August.