Space Pirate Captain Harlock review

Anime fan favourite Space Pirate Captain Harlock stars in a new movie... but is it worth the wait?

If you’re a fan of manga, you probably already know Harlock, although his fan following is much larger in France, Quebec and Japan. Harlock is the brainchild of Leiji Matsumoto (creator of Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers). Harlock was created in the 50s, but his breakthrough came in 1978 with the release of the original television series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. He has since then seen many incarnations, but he had been absent from our screens since 2002. Given the current trend of revisiting old franchise favourites, Harlock was bound to suffer the reboot treatment at one point. Harlock has already been rebooted several times over the years, long before the term “reboot” was actually coined, so it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but some fans feared that Harlock’s move to the big screen would bring about unwelcomed changes to the Harlock mythology. Harlock’s fan base is known as the “Harlock Generation” (at least in France and Quebec). It may not be as large as other fan groups, but it is devoted, and it has stuck with the franchise for over three decades despite the space pirate’s repeated long absences.

The last iterations of Harlock’s adventures have been criticized somewhat for not availing themselves of the latest technological advancements and trends in animation. Harlock, it would appear, was a throwback, stuck in the 70s. The teaser trailer showed during the Tokyo Anime Fair promised to deliver what fans had been waiting for. The visuals were spectacular, but fans had to wait another three years or more to finally see the new movie, and it was worth the wait, at least from a visuals standpoint.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. Even without the 3D and on a television screen, the breadth and depth of the space vistas are simply breath-taking, in both definition and execution. For the military sci-fi fans among us, the space battles will make you groan over having missed the chance of seeing it on a movie screen. There are live-action sci-fi movies out there that fall short of the impact of the space battles in Space Pirate Captain Harlock.

If you’re a fan of manga, Space Pirate Captain Harlock will appear as the culmination of decades of technological advancements in animation technology and art. It will most certainly become the standard against which all other animated movies will be compared with for quite some time. The other anime sci-fi franchises (including Mass Effect, Halo and Appleseed) usually offer the same type of animation fare, most of them aimed at promoting video games. In general, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is not much different from the rest, but it blows everything else out of the water from a visual point of view. A fair number of Harlock fans will not approve of the reimagining of the Harlock characters and mythos, but not unlike what happened with the Battlestar Galactica reboot, the production team did make it clear that this was going to be a version of Harlock for the new generation.

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It is not clear how much creative control Matsumoto (now 76) gave to Shinji Aramaki (of Appleseed fame) for Harlock’s movie theatre debut. I am a big fan of Aramaki and of the Appleseed franchise, but I was afraid of how much Aramaki’s signature would “pollute” the Harlock mythos. The Appleseed franchise, even though it has somewhat floundered over the past few years, was pretty avant-gardist in its time, and Aramaki was arguably the perfect choice to resurrect Harlock, even though one of Aramaki’s latest projects, Starship Troopers: Invasion released in 2012, was little more than a marketing stunt to promote the release of the associated video game, and it did not do very well. (In all fairness, it was no worse and actually marginally better than the last Starship Troopers movie, Starship Troopers: Marauder).

Aramaki’s trademark use of battle armour in his movies can get a bit tedious at times, but in this case, the armour used by Harlock’s crew is very interesting, functional and realistic, down to a plethora of sound effects. It appears both low tech and high tech at once, with a refreshing bit of Steampunk influence thrown in.

After seeing the 2D version of Space Pirate Captain Harlock back in September 2013, James Cameron purportedly praised the visuals as being “visually poetic” and added that “its style and difference are its strength” − and that opinion is dead on because no other anime feature has ever been this majestic. The visuals will become the yardstick against which all other projects will be compared over the next few years, or until the next breakthroughs in animation. Even Aramaki’s latest project, Appleseed Alpha released in July 2014 seems passé in comparison. Despite the excellent animation work, it simply pales in comparison with Space Pirate Captain Harlock.

On visuals and technology alone, Space Pirate Captain Harlock stands as the true progeny of trend-setting anime films such as Ghost In The Shell for the sheer impact it could have on the anime industry. From a story point of view, however, despite its obvious clumsy attempt at anchoring the story in actual current events, it’s not breaking new grounds the way its forbearers did. Even more disappointing, the story shares no similarities or ties to the original Harlock adventures. In fact, the only things that the movie has in common with the venerable decades-old franchise are the names and general appearance of the main characters.

The story is indeed a full reboot of the franchise. This should not surprise Harlock’s fans, since the character has been rebooted several times over the years with very little, or any, continuity between the various incarnations of the space pirate’s adventures. In the past, however, regardless of the new orientation Matsumoto would take for the further adventures of Harlock, you could always count on some things remaining constant, and those were the things that gave Harlock his timeless popularity.

The biggest disappointment here will be the changes to Harlock himself. Scriptwriter Harutoshi Fukui felt that today’s generation would not identify with a “dated” hero, so he wrote an angst-ridden Harlock. One thing you could always count on in any previous Harlock iteration was the space pirate’s pristine values and stoic determination. He was an outcast and a wanted criminal, granted. Harlock was always “flawed,” but Fukui overdid it. Fukui’s Harlock is pretty much responsible for turning the Earth into a dead planet, and the space pirate’s subsequent quest to reverse the hands of time and thereby wiping all living beings out of existence appears more to be the act of a psychopath than of an angst-ridden hero.

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Not unlike Frank Miller’s reimagining of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Harlock here appears as a sociopath, but while Miller’s redefinition of Batman was based on our evolved knowledge of human behaviour, Harlock here only appears as the victim of movie demographics. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, after all, is just your typical anime movie. Demographics seem important here. This is a “passing of the torch” movie, which we are seeing more and more in old movie franchises now (Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Ghostbusters − if it ever gets done) because of aging actors to some degree, but also because some people can’t help but mess up with good things.

Harlock is animated, however, so why pass the torch? Nonetheless, there is a very distinct passing of the torch at the end of the movie, when Yama takes over the helm of the Arcadia, dons an eye-patch after loosing his eye and getting his face scared, and he ends looking exactly like Harlock − just younger. The Yama character in previous Harlock incarnations has always appeared as Harlock’s protégé or philosophical son, but he never took centre stage. Given the power of the Harlock franchise and the faithfulness of its fan base, it makes you wonder what the producers were thinking of with this passing of the torch. If there are to be sequels to this movie, we will see a Harlock look-alike at the helm of that Arcadia, and while this may not sit well with the original Harlock Generation, it appears the producers chose to cater to a much younger audience instead.

This Harlock is a far cry from the hero who could defeat an entire race of aliens, beat the queen of an ancient alien warrior race in single combat, and stand up to cosmic gods who could instil fear even in the most hardy. Harlock does appear near invincible (in combat) in this movie, but this is not due to the strength of character that has characterized his persona for over 30 years. It is merely the results of a freak accident involving “dark matter.” Harlock appears here more as an insane “superhero” that acquired superpowers following an accident than the typical role model he had been known as for decades. In today’s context, this approach to might seem more relevant, but Harlock would appear as a more believable hero if he still embodied some of his original ideals and character traits.

The other characters all bear some resemblance to their original counterparts. Most of them are there, including Kei, Yama, Yattaran, Miime, and of course, the Arcadia, Harlock’s ship. The ship that had been a constant in the Harlock universe for over 30 years was almost completely metamorphosed for this film. The skull figurehead that had become the ship’s trademark in Arcadia Of My Youth in 1982 is the only feature still reminiscent of the original ship. Of all the stunning visuals of the film, this is the only design that is a disappointment, not only for its bastardizing of a fan icon, but also for its lack of originality. The ship seems to have grown extra, Giger-like appendages that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever except attempting to look badass. However, even without the 3D effect, the skull-adorned prow still looks impressive, and it’s used to maximum effect during the battle scenes as a battering ram.

More disappointing for the hard-core fans, however, is that the Arcadia is no longer the brainchild of Tochiro, Harlock’s deceased friend. It is merely a destroyer transformed into a pirate ship by “dark matter.” Even though the Arcadia still appears to be the repository for Tochiro’s restless soul, it has lost most of its iconic character and personality.

Yama’s inner conflict over whether to sign on with Harlock or kill him has never taken on such depth, to the point of being dizzying and actually ridiculous at times. He changes camp so many times that it reaches a point where you no longer care.

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Miime has grown a mouth. Of all the character changes made for this film, this is the one that actually improves the character. Her ethereal nature if finally captured fully, and the outstanding animation work manages to portray her the way she should have always been portrayed. Kei has, thankfully, been radically redesigned since her first appearance in the Tokyo Anime Fair preview where she appeared as nothing more than a Barbie doll in a skintight latex suit. Her totally useless scene in the zero gravity shower, possibly a nod to her similar scene in 2002’s Endless Odyssey, will provide little of the gratuitous nudity that some anime fans might be expecting.

Movement capture technology was used and it seems to work, lending a very realistic cinematic feel to the characters’ movements, but it’s hard to see where it was used for facial capture. The characters do not show many facial expressions except for Yattaran who appears more as a caricatured character, having lost much of his signature personality.

I’m still baffled by the choice of One Cool Rock for the theme song, a very weak spot in the history of a franchise that has produced some memorable original soundtracks and theme songs that still resonate with Harlock fans today.

Sci-fi movies are rarely known for their astronomical accuracy, and Anime is no exception. Dark matter is thrown in and used liberally in Space Pirate Captain Harlock, but it appears more as a supernatural force than a force of nature.

If you couldn’t catch Space Pirate Captain Harlock on the big screen, the experience will lose some of its impact at home, even if you have a top-notch system. You will still be awed by the outstanding visuals, however. Regardless of its visual qualities, if you are a die-hard Harlock fan, chances are that the movie will disappoint you more than anything else. Fans will be left wondering just how awesome this movie would have been had the new creative team stuck with the original Harlock mythos.

The very first scene aboard the Arcadia is a shining example of what Harlock fans would expect out of a more mature, updated version of the space pirate’s adventures. Harlock had never, in the past, made anyone walk the plank and fall to his death for failing to answer his “pirate enlistment” interview. This scene could have set the overall tone for the movie. There are similar badass moments throughout the movie, including some of the most impressive space battles that top anything else ever produced in Anime and that also outshine a fair share of live-action movies. In most moments, though, Space Pirate Captain Harlock does not live up to its legacy.

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3 out of 5