February 14, 2019

Harlock: Space Pirate

There is a category of movie (and television series) that is watchable and recommendable for pretty much everything but its qualities as a compelling work of cinematic storytelling.

Harlock: Space Pirate is a case in point.

To start with, made for an estimated $30 million, here is convincing evidence that the state of the art in motion capture 3DCG animation can be achieved for a fraction of the cost of the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Frozen (released the same year) had a budget of $150 million.

Frankly, it's mind-boggling how far the technology has come since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The first "photorealistic" computer-animated feature film, it cost a staggering $137 million (staggering for a major motion picture based on original Japanese content) and bankrupted Square Pictures.

Director Shinji Aramaki brought in his first Appleseed film for a more reasonable $10 million.

Aramaki mastered the technical aspects of motion capture 3DCG animation at the helm of the Appleseed films, beginning with Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007). He followed Harlock: Space Pirate with Appleseed Alpha (2014). In that decade, a technology affordable by a few became truly economical.

But all the computers in the world still can't digitally render a decent script out of raw data. Once again we see on display Aramaki's penchant for overly complex plots that require a flow chart to follow.

Not to mention the overused trope that "profound" means "underlit and moody." Matsumoto's original Captain Harlock is an idealistic Robin Hood in an Art Deco world. But according to the backstory of Harlock: Space Pirate, he inflicted so much damage in pursuit of that idealism that he must now atone for it. Gloomily.

The problem this presents is that watching the protagonist mope around for two hours is no fun. So the until the big climax, our titular character has only a minor supporting role and most of the events take place around him.

Long story short, Captain Harlock must destroy the Earth (again) to save it (or something). Meanwhile, the "Gaia Coalition" is determined to stop him from throwing a big wrench into the gears of their fake Earth-worshipping religion (I liked that part). But I quickly stopped caring about the whys and wherefores.

Because all the movie needs is a MacGuffin to keep the story chugging along while we wallow in Leiji Matsumoto's steam punk space opera universe.

Leiji Matsumoto is one of the grand old dons of Japanese manga and animation. In 1974, he co-created the Space Battleship Yamato series, in which the WWII battleship is salvaged and launched into space to save the Earth from malevolent aliens.

Reasoning that it doesn't matter what a ship looks like in space, in 1978, he turned a 17th century Spanish galleon into a starship (Captain Harlock) and did the same with a 19th century steam locomotive (Galaxy Express 999). The latter was inspired by Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad (1927).

Alas, aside from the ship's wheel on the bridge, the Arcadia in Harlock: Space Pirate retains little of the original's retro features.

Except this Arcadia is powered by "dark matter," and dark matter, don't you know, is all black and sooty. This abject silliness does result in the delightfully iconoclastic image of Captain Harlock's hulking starship belching thick clouds of smoke like one of Commodore Matthew Perry's coal-fired "Black Ships."

"Pirates in Outer Space" has since become a genre of its own. Most notably, Firefly and Cowboy Bebop and all the Han Solo segments in the Star Wars films.

The former two series share a similar premise with Harlock: Space Pirate, positing that Earth has become unlivable and a bureaucratic hegemony rules over the scattered remnants of its inhabitants. They also heavily mine the traditional Hollywood western for iconic inspiration.

For Star Wars, George Lucas looked east. The "knights" in Star Wars are armed with "lightsabers" that are really electrified katana. Darth Vader's outfit (especially the helmet) closely resembles the battle gear of the medieval samurai.

Matsumoto's Captain Harlock, on the other hand, flies the Jolly Roger and wields an épée (that doubles as a rifle). Hey, "exotic" is relative.

Related videos

Captain Harlock (CR) (Tubi)
Space Battleship Yamato (2012 remake)
Galaxy Express 999 (CR) (Tubi)
The Galaxy Railways
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Cowboy Bebop (Fun) (Tubi) (NF)

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
2/15/2019 7:47 AM   
Haven't seen the live action movie, but in the anime Harlock is a https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThePiratesWhoDontDoAnything He is rarely seen doing any raiding.

It's interesting not while Cowboy Bebop (and Trigun and Outlaw Star) were doing futuristic Westerns, American animation was doing a futuristic samurai saga in Samurai Jack.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
2/17/2019 10:49 AM   
Indeed. A few of the early episodes in the television series show them raiding transport ships. But then it turns out Harlock is warehousing the loot. So it is not at all clear how he's bankrolling the whole operation. To be fair, the whole space opera genre is powered by magical gas tanks that never run dry (and weapons that never run out of bullets).
# posted by Blogger Matthew
2/18/2019 7:37 AM   
True. It's probably like how Star Trek never deals with economics. We hear that mankind has evolved beyond poverty but we never find out what kind of economic system the Federation has. Socialist? Some kind of compassionate capitalism?

The original Harlock had an infamous scene were he encounters SUBMARINES in space so it never was realistic.

The spaceship in Cowboy Bebop did memorably in one episode run out of fuel. But Cowboy Bebop was not really space opera.