The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 107 – Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Space Pirate Captain Harlock 1

Returning to television, this week’s anime is regarded as a classic of its type, namely the grand sci-fi genre of “space opera”. It is an epic series in terms of longevity, having begun as a manga back in 1977, turned into an anime the following year, and adaptations, remakes and sequels still being made.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock was created by Leiji Matsumoto, who created many great sci-fi manga back in the 1970s. The five-volume manga first became an anime back in 1978-79 for 42 episodes, but it has had many anime since then, many of which seem to contradict each other despite their quality. The most recent incarnation was a 3D CGI movie released in 2013, which also deviated from the original story significantly.

The original story is set a thousand years into the future from when the original manga was created, in the year 2977 AD. By this time humanity has passed its peak, and is now in a state of general apathy with the rest of the universe. One of the few people who is against the state that Earth is now in is Captain Harlock, a rebellious romantic rebel who is the pirate in space. Aboard his space ship, the Arcadia, Harlock and his crew rebel against both the Earth government and any aliens who are against Harlock’s principles of freedom.

Amongst Harlock’s crew are Kei Yuki, the female chief navigator and often seen as the second-in-command; Miime, a female alien who is the last surviving member of her race and is Harlock’s closest friend; Yattaran, the first mate who has a passion for building model ships; and the most recent member of the crew Tadashi Daiba, who joins the Arcadia following the assassination of his father and Earth government’s reluctance and open hostility to help him. Outside of the Arcadia the only other person Harlock shows true devotion to is Mayu Oyama, a young girl whose late father Tochiro built the Arcadia and to whom Harlock acts as her guardian. Mayu constantly wants to be with Harlock on the Arcadia, but Harlock denies her because of her father’s wish that she should remain on Earth.

Returning to Tadashi Daiba, part of the reason why he came on the Arcadia was to find out more about his father’s assassination. The assassin was a mysterious tall woman who burned to a crisp when she died. Later Harlock, Daiba and the crew learn that she comes from an alien race called the Mazone, who a race of asexual plant-like aliens most of whom are female in appearance, who have left their home planet of and intend to colonise the Earth, eliminating humankind in the process. The Mazone, led by Queen Lafresia, become the main antagonists of the series, but even so Harlock always seems to have a slight sympathy with Lafresia, understanding why they would go to such desperate lengths.

The series’s main focuses on Harlock’s battles with the Mazone, and with the corrupt Earth government who often use Mayu to drag Harlock back in the hope of capturing him. One of the other recurring features is the Arcadia itself, mainly because it seems to have a strange life of its own. Thus, alongside Harlock and his forty-strong crew, Lafresia is constantly trying to figure out if there is another secret crew member aboard.

Captain Harlock is one of the great anime heroes: brave, romantic and intelligent. It is understandable why he and the crew of the Arcadia have become so popular, always seemingly avoiding nearr-certain death, but death is always close. One sign of this could be indicated in another sci-fi series from the same time, but from Britain. In Japan, like many other Far-Eastern nations, certain numbers are lucky and unlucky. For example the number four in Japan, “shi”, also sounds like the word for “death”. Combine that with the number two and you get “shi ni”, meaning unto death. Thus the true total number of crew members and the total number of episodes in the original series add up what coincidentally happens to be 42, the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – indeed, a very Ultimate Answer in this case.

On the downside, looking back at this series you do remember that this was made in the 1970s. There are times when it does feel a tad non-PC, namely when it comes to women. For example it is rather patronising towards the character of Kei. The characters will often say how brilliant she is, despite being a woman. Plus you have the main villains being a race of aliens nearly all of whom look like women. In retrospect Harlock may have slight issues with some viewers.

The other problem is the sequels that came in after. Many contradicted each other. Some titles that were claimed to be sequels were actually more like remakes. Harmony Gold, who made the controversial Robotech series (No. 64) which combined several anime together, also combined this anime with another of Matsumoto’s sci-fi anime, Queen Millennia. The most recent remake is a 2013 3D CGI movie released in English as Harlock: Space Pirate (see trailer below). The film is very well made. It even has an English dub that even I found not too bad (and that’s as high a praise I tend to give on English dubs). However, many people hate the film because it has very little relation to the main series. Aside from the main characters on the Arcadia nearly everything is different. It is set much further into the future, there is no Mayu or Mazone, and the main villains are just the Earth government, who are not even on Earth. However, as separate movie Harlock: Space Pirate is enjoyable.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is one for die-hard sci-fi fans. It contains all the stuff you need for an epic story, combined with one of anime’s great heroes.

The original Space Pirate Captain Harlock is released on Region 1 DVD by Discotek Media. The 3D CGI film Harlock: Space Pirate is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment, and can be streamed on Netflix.