Sunday, December 28, 2014

Anime review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock

A classic of a bygone era, before anime was so distinctly identified by wide-eyed faces or drawn-out power-up sequences, Space Pirate Captain Harlock’s more rounded character designs and heavy influence by western animators from the late seventies/early eighties stood among the first of their kind, then commonly referred to as ‘Japan-imation’. Fast-forward to 2013, and Captain Harlock’s latest outing is a film that revisits the roots of the character in a gloriously-rendered, if not frequently dark and gritty-looking, full CG adaptation. One of the great things about this new take on Captain Harlock is that it is easily accessible to newcomers like myself, who were born many years after Harlock’s original animated run, while still retaining the core cast and updating familiar plot points for the sake of streamlining the presentation.

Captain Harlock and his skull-decorated ship, the Arcadia – an appropriately pirate-themed vessel, matching the free-from-law lifestyle of those on board – are considered phantoms among those who have heard of them. They appear and disappear quickly, making short work of those they intend to plunder from, and though some have claimed to land hits on the Arcadia, it does not seem to make a difference, as the ship has some strange qualities of self-repair. When the Arcadia lands on a backwater world, a group of young men chase its smoky trail to its landing site, but only one – the steadfast Logan – makes the cut and is allowed to join the company of Harlock’s crew.

Logan is introduced to a few key crew members early on, including the lethal blonde beauty Kei, and the scruffy, often comical Yullian. Harlock, however, remains distant, an imposing figure always observing Logan, but rarely addressing him directly. This is perhaps for the better, as a brief while after he sets course for the stars in the company of Harlock’s loyal crew, it is revealed that Logan is actually a spy planted by the Gaia Sanction, a group determined to keep the Earth free from anyone setting foot on its surface, lest the bloody Homecoming War of a hundred years prior be repeated. Under the command of his wheelchair-bound brother Ezra, Logan is to inform them of the location and status of the Arcadia, as well as attempt an assassination of its infamous Captain Harlock.

Practically every facet of this film has been updated for today’s audiences. The pacing is spot-on, granting viewers enough time to become invested in the characters early on and subsequently find themselves immersed in the space-age fantasy tech. Harlock does a great job of pushing a ‘gritty reboot’ style that has seemingly become the norm for many properties in both the east and west hemispheres over the past decade. And yet, despite the greater degree of realism in character designs and the intimidating capabilities of the Arcadia, the film does not completely do away with the exciting fantasy thematic – rather, it embraces it just enough to cater to a broad audience. The concept of space pirates who fly the flag of skull and crossbones will no doubt entertain younger viewers, while the gravity of decisions made by the individual characters will satisfy the older crowd, and prevent this film from being simply a whimsical retread of the pioneering days of anime from which Harlock, Mobile Suit Gundam, and many other classics hail.

Admittedly, there are a couple of segments late in the film where certain characters seem to see their conflict as larger than life, and the manner in which these quarrels are dealt with might feel more at home in a film more heavily emphasizing fantastical and over-the-top fights. While these brief sequences are somewhat silly in the grand scheme of things, the tone of the film remains otherwise quite consistent throughout. This updated version of Captain Harlock is a masterful accomplishment in terms of its visuals, as a ludicrous amount of detail is worked into every environment, each character’s expressions are complex and eeriely human, and ship-to-ship combat a most fiery and bombastic spectacle to behold. Space Pirate Captain Harlock is what fun movie experiences ought to be all about – it may not be the most complicated story ever conveyed, but it knows when to pull the right punches, and has something to offer viewers both young and old.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

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