Space Pirate Captain Harlock 3D and Captain Harlock lookback

A new version of Space Pirate Captain Harlock is on the way, but Jules-Pierre is yearning for the Arcadia of his youth...

If you’re a fan of manga or anime, you might be feverishly looking forward to the release of the English-dubbed version of Space Pirate Captain Harlock 3D, which was released in the original Japanese last autumn.

While we wait for the English-dubbed version to hit our theaters or DVD stores (fans in France had a nice Christmas gift last year with the December 25 release of the French-dubbed version), let’s go over Captain Harlock’s various incarnations over the three decades since his first breakthrough televised series.

Original television series: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978)

Some of you may not know Harlock, even though he enjoys a worldwide fan base (especially in France and Quebec where he is known as Albator). But back in 1979, kids in my neighborhood would run home from school, skip piano lessons and shirk their chores to catch the latest episode of Captain Harlock on the small screen.

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In the context of the late 70s, children, teenagers and even adults were starved of more space opera in the wake of the release of Star Wars. The entertainment industry would eventually deliver on both the small and big screens, with Battlestar Galactica on television in 1978, and Battle Beyond The Stars in theaters in 1980 (to name but two). In the meantime, Space Pirate Captain Harlock filled the void with its inspiring space vistas, impressive battleship designs, kick-ass space battles, engaging characters, and surprisingly (for television at that time) powerful soundtrack with every awesome action-packed weekly 23-minute episode.

Harlock had been around for some time already. He had made his first, barely-noticed appearance in Adventures Of A Honeybee in 1953, but he only gained significant exposure and popularity with the release of his original adventures in manga comic format in 1977, shortly followed by the first animated series devoted to his space pirating adventures in Space Pirate Captain Harlock the following year.

Fans of genre television and cinema are by now familiar (and perhaps even tired) with reboots and remakes, given that so many franchises (anything from Batman to Battlestar Galactica) have received that treatment. However, long before the expression ‘reboot’ was even coined, Harlock had already seen several reinterpretations.

The brainchild of Leiji Matsumoto (creator of Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers, Galaxy Express 999, and more recently, Interstellar 5555: The 5tory Of The 5ecret 5tar 5ystem in cooperation with Daft Punk), Harlock is one of the first genre antiheroes to hit the large or small screen. In 1978, the Space Pirate Captain Harlock television series introduced us to the adventures of the brooding, eyepatch-wearing pirate and his crew of misfits aboard the Arcadia, the most powerful battleship in known space. It dealt with somewhat more mature themes than other animated shows, which brought it to the attention of more than the Saturday morning TV cartoon crowd. Along with Space Battleship Yamato (and its American counterpart, Star Blazers), it arguably introduced the arc-based plot line that would become popular only decades later with shows like Babylon 5.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock was released in Japan in March 1978. Foreign language dubs, including versions in Italian, French and English started being released the following year.

The series became such a success in France that its original fans (40 to 50 years old now) are called “la generation Albator” (the Harlock Generation), which also extends to the French Quebecer fan base.

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This first incarnation of Harlock on the small screen told a story arc in 42 episodes. Harlock was mysterious, dark, brooding, yet approachable and human. A man of deep emotions and strong values, he defied the establishment, an interstellar government more decadent and indolent than corrupt, while fighting an invading alien race, the Mazone, a race of plant-based yet human-like females intent on reclaiming the Earth, which they had visited in Mayan times.

Harlock was the Captain of the Arcadia, an almost invincible pirate ship with technology and weaponry far superior to that of Earth or even of the alien Mazone. The Arcadia was actually “possessed” by the soul of Harlock’s friend, Tochiro, the genius who had also designed and built the Arcadia as a weapon to fight the invaders and as the repository for his soul once he passed away.

Space Captain Harlock was pure space opera, filled with strong-willed heroes, statuesque female characters, hard-boiled antagonists and plant-based alien female hotties that doubled as space villains.

To this day, I am still in awe of the deep blue space vista that served as backdrops to the space battles featured in every episode. The series was purportedly aimed at children, but the settings were dark and the story filled with tragic heroes and alluring female villains. The characters stood out clearly, nuanced and endearing, unlike anything in televised animation at that time. 

The series was meant for children, but it introduced themes that appealed to teenagers and young adults as well. The Mazone were very sexy, tall, slender, alluring and deadly. The only two females characters onboard Harlock’s battleship were Miime, a female alien with no mouth, but who still managed to imbibe copious amounts of alcohol every episode; and Kei Yuki, arguably the first genre female kickass character (not counting Princess Leia) to hit the television and movie screens.

Harlock eventually vanquished the Mazone, destroying their entire fleet and defeating their leader, Queen Lafreisa, in single combat. He then sailed off into the space sunset. But the fans wanted more.

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Feature-length movie: Arcadia Of My Youth (1982)

Despite the success of the first televised series in 1978, the fans had to wait until 1982 for the next major incarnation of Harlock in the feature film Arcadia Of My Youth. (I’m not counting the release of the short film, Captain Harlock – Mystery Of The Arcadia, which was really only a retelling of an episode of the 78 series).

For many fans, this second installment of Harlock’s adventures was somewhat of a disappointment, since even though the story appeared to happen before the events of the first series, this new story was set in a different continuity from the original series; Harlock was seeing his first reboot.

Most of the characters from the original series were gone, with the exception of Miime, who was rebooted. The same can be said about Emeraldas and Toshiro; they showed up here, much as they did in the first series, but in appearance only. They were not part of the original continuity. Tadashi, Doctor Zero and the rest of the misfit crew were gone. Harlock’s ship, the Arcadia, was also redesigned to some extent, taking on a design that it would keep from then on in, up to the present with the 3D feature film released last year. Gone was the profiled prow, replaced by a blunt, skull-adorned ram, but the rest of the ship, except for the color scheme, was still reminiscent of the old Arcadia.

Harlock was still the same with some minor wardrobe changes. He appeared even more as the romantic hero with an actual love interest; a tragic story that, despite any claim of continuity with the first series, seemed to be the perfect backstory for Harlock’s taciturn, dour and melancholic personality of the 78 series.

Once again in this installment, Harlock was fighting an alien race, the Illumidas, except that in this story, the Earth had already fallen to the invading aliens, and the planet’s government and remaining space navy were mere lackeys of the new alien overlords. Gone were the exclusively female-like Mazone, replaced by the male-only Illumidas.

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The premise here was darker: The Illumidas had a firm grasp on Earth, its denizen and remaining military. Harlock had to fight both the governmental forces and the Illumidas.

Harlock met Toshiro, essentially the same character as in the different continuity of the original series, since Toshiro here is also the designer and builder of the Arcadia. The two characters became fast friends and Toshiro pledged his life and his ship to Harlock’s cause of defeating the alien invaders.

Harlock defeated the Illumidas reagent in a spaceship duel. The image of the redeemed villain appears to be a favorite theme of Matsumoto’s, since, just like Mitsuru Kiruda in the original series, the Illumidas leader is redeemed after loosing his duel with Harlock by helping the space pirate defeat the entire Illumidas armada.

Harlock once again sailed off and left for outer space, but this time, he was actually banished from Earth and labeled an outlaw. Despite Harlock’s one victory, the Illumidas still had a strong hold on the Earth and the rest of known space.

The movie set the stage for the series that it helped spawn and that was released later on in the autumn of 1982.

Endless Road/Orbit SSX (1982)

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The 22-episode series that followed in October 1982 picked up where the feature-length movie Arcadia Of My Youth left off. Harlock had been branded an outlaw. He traveled space looking for a planet of freedom where everyone could live free.

The series suffered from low ratings and only ran for 22 episodes. Many believed that the animation style used to tell Harlock’s adventures had become passé, but his fan following endured. Still, it would be several years before Harlock would make another major appearance.

Harlock Saga (1998)

Matsumoto brought Harlock back in 1998 with Harlock Saga, which used a slightly different format. The animation style was still the same, but the story arc was limited to a six-part miniseries. The animated series was part of a longer arc only available in manga format.

The story was a daring mating of Das Rheingold and Captain Harlock. The usual pop soundtrack of the previous series made room for classical music, a not-so bold move after George Lucas’ choice of using instrumental music over electronica for Star Wars over 20 years earlier (and the slew of space opera flicks that followed suit), but still an interesting concept given that Matsumoto was also using Harlock as a vehicle to retell the classic tale of Das Rheingold.

For the die-hard Harlock fans who had seen little of their hero over the past decade, the sight of the Arcadia cruising through space to the tune of Siegfried’s Funeral March was quite a treat.

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Once again, the entire crew was rebooted into new characters. The faces were the same, but the familiar crewmembers now took on roles in parallel with The Ring Cycle. The names and overall appearances were still familiar though, including Miime (spelled Meeme in this version), who was now recast as one of the last survivors of a race of space-faring gods. Fan favorite Key Yuki was notably absent, but Tadashi, Tochiro and even Emeraldas were there. Matsumoto also introduced a character from one of his other franchises: Maetel from Galaxy 999 (Harlock also had a couple of cameos in Galaxy 999, but how those fit in any of the previous Harlock story arcs or continuity is something that Harlock scholars could spend years debating).

The story revolved around a metal used by the gods (the Rheingold) and its importance in the “forging” of the universe. The leader of the Nibelheim wanted to claim the Rheingold, but his sister, Meeme, warned Harlock.

In this arc, Harlock was not defending an oppressed Earth. He was fighting to save the Universe itself from destruction in a fight that pitted him against the Nibelheim, and the gods of Valhalla themselves.

This series did not make as much of a splash as the original series. The animation was still very “traditional,” at a time when the industry had moved on, but the fans were still happy to watch the series, no matter how short it was.

Endless Odyssey (2002)

Fans had to wait until 2002 for an actual sequel to the original 1978 series. Endless Odyssey picked up sometime after the events at the end of the original Space Pirate Captain Harlock series.

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Harlock was in self-imposed exile, his crew scattered to all corners of knownspace, some living off the grid or in squalor, others rotting away in prison. The story opens on a voice-over by returning fan favorite Key Yuki, who, along with a handful of Harlock’s old crew, avoided imprisonment and kept on living the space pirating life.

The series boasted an original soundtrack on par with the awesomeness of the score of the original series. Its omnipresent blues undertones complement the often minimalistic yet stylishly rendered animation that appeared here more as a tribute to old-style animation than as an attempt to break new grounds in animation technology. Matsumoto appeared to disregard the comments about the outdated animation style of the previous Harlock series. In fact, the animation is actually quite minimal at times, giving way to still images with voice-over. The art was top-notch but minimalistic, and flew in the face of animation trends at the time. Whatever the intention was, it worked. The dark sceneries underlined by the moody music and melancholic characterizations blended well with the simple yet well rendered animation.

Harlock once again fought against god-like creatures called the Noo. The origin of this new threat was mysterious and ancient: they were powerful and could use fear to destroy their enemies.

Although the series claimed to be an almost complete sequel of the original series, certain elements had clearly been rebooted. For example, the series reintroduced Tadashi as a “new” character. Tadashi once again witnessed the tragic death of his father (at the hands of the Noo, as apposed to the Mazone in the original series). He also ended up on the Arcadia, but he did not have any previous acquaintance with Harlock, as opposed to the rest of the other returning characters, including Key Yuki, Doctor Zero and Miime. So Matsumoto here appeared to have applied a selective reboot for the Tadashi character alone for reasons that still puzzle fans today.

The Arcadia returned, but bearing the skull-adorned prow it had sported even since The Arcadia Of My Youth. Like Harlock, the ship here takes on near-mythic powers, able to fend off the attacks of the god-like Noo. The Noo attacked Harlock, but their fear-inducing power had no effect on the stoic pirate.

Harlock eventually defeated the Noo and set sail, once again, for places unknown. And this would be the last the fans would see of Harlock for a long time.

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Other Harlock appearances

I’m not mentioning in this quick retrospective the many appearances by Harlock in a number of other forms over the years, such as his cameos in parent franchises (the Galaxy Express 999 and the Queen Emeraldas spin-off series). I also did not mention the 2001 series Cosmowarrior Zero, which became known in French as La jeunesse d’Albator (Harlock’s Youth), where despite the fact that he does not hold the title character, Harlock made more than a cameo. I am also disregarding the US repack Captain Harlock And The Queen Of A Thousand Years, which was an attempt at combining footage of the original series with that of the Queen Millennia anime series; an attempt that failed miserably and only served to enrage many of the fans.

It would take another ten years before we would hear of Harlock appearing in a new stand-alone story.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock 3D (2013)

Rumours of a theatrical Harlock movie being in the works had been circulating for years when a first preview was shown during the Tokyo Anime Fair in 2010. The 90-second clip generated a lot of buzz. It would mark the first time Harlock would be rendered in CGI and in 3D.

The short preview strongly highlighted the striking differences between the conventional animation style used for Harlock thus far and the latest CGI trend, and the added 3D element promised to deliver even more to the franchise.

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The preview, meant only to be shown at the Anime Fair, wound up on the Internet, both to the immediate delight of some and burning criticism from other die-hard Harlock fans.

As short as the clip was, a number of observations could be made already: Harlock appeared the same as ever as the stoic, larger-than-life outlaw. But there were notable differences, some of them welcomed, others less so.

Screenwriter Arutoshi Fukui was concerned about Harlock appearing “old,” meaning outdated, since he felt that children today would not be able to relate to the original, heroic version of Harlock. He felt that children would identify more with an angst-ridden Harlock. This is therefore a darker incarnation of the character, not merely meant for the “Harlock generation,” but obviously intended for 21st century anime crowds.

Key Yuki, however, appeared to have received a Barbie doll-like make-over. She looked heavily stylised, with the clip dwelling unnecessarily on her female attributes. Her face lacks expression and seems fixed in a permanent porcelain doll stare. This angered some fans, while others applauded the sexualisation of one of the first strong female characters in film and televised genre fiction.

By the time the next trailer made its appearance on the Internet, the new CGI Key Yuki had gone through another rapid transformation, however. She appeared more lifelike, and not so heavily stereotyped, which was a relief to many.

Miime seems to have gained a mouth during her CGI redesign, which is going to be a relief to those fans who never could wrap their head around the idea of her imbibing copious amount of alcohol, although we wouldn’t be surprised if the alcohol was gone altogether in this version.

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The Arcadia has been extensively redesigned, taking on organic Giger-esque characteristics, most of which appear to be for effect rather than functionality. The skull-adorned prow, which had become the Arcadia’s trademark since Arcadia Of My Youth, appears to be the only element reminiscent of the previous anime versions of the ship, but the CGI (and 3D) rendition do lend the prow additional pirate credentials. The Arcadia was the brainchild and repository of Tochiro’s soul, and it became one of the most enduring and endearing staple of the Harlock universe. As such, it became a character in its own right. Sadly, in this version, even though there is mention of Toshiro’s soul being onboard, the Arcadia has been reduced to a mere Earth destroyer transformed by an incident involving dark matter.

Battle armor is a new element thrown into the Harlock universe. The presence of battle armor should not be surprising with Harlock being something of a military sci-fi tale, but it had never been an element of the previous stories. Its presence definitely should not be surprising since it is probably due to the influence of the film’s director, Shinji Aramaki, of Appleseed fame. Anyone familiar with Aramaki’s work knows that battle armor is his signature, which he used extensively and to good effect in the Appleseed features. He also used them to a great extent in the unremarkable 2012 entry into animation of the Starship Troopers franchise, Starship Troopers: Invasion (battle armor was not new to the ST franchise, however, having been introduced already in the much maligned 2008 straight-to-DVD Starship Troopers: Marauder).

We can only hope that Aramaki’s battle armor will not substitute for the strong characterization and human elements of the original Harlock personalities. The first few clips seems to dwell at length on armor-clad space battles, but the extended 10-minute clip that surfaced on the Internet a little less than a year before the original Japanese release of the movie showed armor that seemed to borrow on Steampunk elements rather than high-tech fare. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the full movie.

A number of other clips and teasers have surfaced on the net since then, including a 10-minute English-subbed clip, and one thing is certain: the images and battle scenes are breathtaking and worthy of the original, albeit less high-tech, classic series. However, fans would have to wait over three more years before the original Japanese release in the autumn of 2013.

The movie had a reported $30m budget, and it was in production for five years. The work is still based on Leiji Matsumoto’s ideas, and he’s said to have had extensive creative and decisional creative input. The production team was quick to mention that the movie was a reboot, and not a remake of the Harlock saga. It is clear from what we’ve seen so far that it is a full reboot, with nothing of the previous stories being carried over into this latest installment, as opposed to Matsumoto’s previous partial rebooting.

One of weakest points of the movie appears to be the title song by Japanese pop group One Cool Rock. Considering the history of powerful scores and enduring theme songs the Harlock saga has spawned over the years, this latest decision by the new production team has disappointed some fans.

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At the time of writing, an English-dubbed version has been announced, but no official release date in any English-speaking country has been confirmed yet. A French-dubbed version has been playing in France since last Christmas, and the French DVD and Blu-ray disc (region B) were released on the 30th April. An original Japanese version with English subtitles is available from Amazon, which will become increasingly tempting to buy as time goes by without a confirmation of an English-dubbed release date. With the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival fast approaching, we can only hope that Harlock‘s producers will not miss this opportunity to showcase either a French or English-dubbed version during that event.

One thing is for certain: the entry of Harlock into the CGI and 3D fold has not only resuscitated the franchise, which had been dormant for 10 years, but it has also brought it out of the outdated animation style it was reluctant to let go of. Surprisingly, though, while waiting for the English-dubbed released of the 3D feature, I have very much enjoyed revisiting the previous series. While I’m anxious to see the CGI 3D revamp, I found that the older series has aged remarkably well, despite the intervening years.

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