Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark
Her sails are full, though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . – Thomas Moore
There’s mainstream, and then there’s stuff for the connoisseurs. No matter how good the mainstream stuff is, there’s always something a little stronger, a little purer, a little rarer, a little more off the beaten path.
Some might argue one can acquire a connoisseur’s taste, but I’d say it’s more that one discovers the connoisseur lurking inside. Sometimes, briefly, the connoisseur’s and the mainstream’s tastes can travel together, but in the end the connoisseur’s taste leads off in its own direction, and while the mainstream may be forever flavored by the connoisseur’s delight, it never really knows how to appreciate it and in the end satisfies itself with watered down versions of the real thing.
Allow me to introduce you to Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock.
There’s a lot of arguing over who did what first and how that affected everything that came afterwards, but the facts are this: In 1977 space opera was in the air, and in the US a young director named George Lucas was about to redefine the genre for moviegoers while in Japan a young mangaka was doing the same thing for manga readers.
It’s hard at this point to separate who influenced whom. Both creators drew from different but similar streams, both creators did innovative things that reflected the work of the other but seemingly without any direct link.
Lucas acknowledges the influence of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa on his work, and while Kurosawa was also an influence for Matsumoto, the Japanese artist was also influenced by traditional European sources.
As if to further muddy the waters, the publishing / broadcast / release history of Captain Harlock’s adventures deliberately defies any and all attempts to link them in a single, logical continuity. Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek or the various American superhero universes that link each and every single issue / story / character into a rigid timeline, Harlock’s appearances are capricious, contradictory, and confusing.
original manga version of Harlock’s ship, The Arcadia
It’s almost as if we are not seeing the adventures of one single character, but rather all the multitudes of Harlock that exist in the quantum multiverses.
So don’t think of Harlock & co. as a character; think of him as an icon. He is the hero of a thousand faces in reverse; a single battle scarred, eye patch covered face with a thousand different heroes hiding behind it.
There’re a lot of variations of Captain Harlock out there,
including but not limited to his appearances in –
- Adventures Of A Honeybee (manga, 1953)
- Gun Frontier (manga, 1972; novel, 1999; anime TV, 2002)
- Galaxy Express 999 (manga, 1977; anime feature, 1979; anime TV, 1981)
- Space Pirate Captain Harlock (manga, 1977; anime TV, 1978)
- Arcadia Of My Youth (anime feature, 1982)
- Queen Emeraldas (anime OVA, 1998)
- Harlock Saga (manga, 1998; anime mini-series, 1999)
- Space Pirate Captain Harlock: Outside Legend – The Endless Odyssey (anime OVA, 2002)
- Space Pirate Captain Harlock (CGI feature, 2013)
In addition to the above, about a half a dozen or so spin-off projects including TV episodes extended into featurettes, series set in the same universe but not featuring a direct appearance by Harlock or other characters, and just purely random cameos for the hell of it in other Matsumoto stories.
Harlock is a hero of Wagnerian proportions, specifically Captain Hendrick Vanderdecken, the Flying Dutchman. There is a deep, dark melancholy dwelling in his restless heart, one that pushes him and compels him to action even at great cost to himself and for often Quixotic purposes. He manages to be both a Romantic and an existentialist hero at the same time, and that precarious contradiction is a big part of what makes him so compelling as a character.
How much of Harlock may be directly derived from European legend, and how much is various aspects of bushido culture interpreted in new form, and how much is second or third hand osmosis is anybody’s guess. Matsumoto is certainly not unaware of Wagner (Harlock Saga is essentially his retelling of Das Rheingold set in space) but seems to have taken only the tragic / heroic soul of the legend and none of the details.
Whatever iteration of Harlock, it’s always thunderously good space opera.
And the “opera” portion of that description is quite apt. As has been observed elsewhere, good opera doesn’t have to make logical sense, only emotional sense. And there’s something about the captain and his damned / doomed ship that resonates very, very deeply.
The best of the most recent versions of the story is Space Pirate Captain Harlock, now available for streaming on Netflix. CGI animation is good to excellent; character design could have been better, the subtitles are only adequate, but the whiz-bang is very whizzy and very bangy, and visually it is a pure delight. The big plot reveal can be seen marching down the boulevard from the first reel, but the film makers seem to recognize this and just go all out with the ending and the theme that while the captain may be eternal, the man behind the eye patch isn’t.
Highly recommended, especially to manga / anime fans and classic pulp space opera buffs. Mainstream audiences will probably enjoy all the pretty eye candy but just not get what it is that Matsumoto et al are trying to achieve.
That’s okay. As Joel Hodgson once observed:
“It’s not important that everybody gets the joke,
just that the right people get the joke.”
 By definition, anything with an audience in the tens of millions is mainstream so just deal with it.
 Kurosawa was far from culturally pure in his influences in film making, frequently drawing upon both Russian classics and American pop culture for his sources and inspirations.
 Genius that I am, it only took me 40+ years to realize that quaint middle European backwater cultures is what looks exotic to a Japanese artist.
 He is far from the first or only Japanese manga / anime character to be handled this way. The producers of the dark, starkly tragic Neongenesis Evangelion series felt so bad about what they put the characters through that they brought them back for a more light hearted teen comedy. The various Tenchi Muyo series typically reboot from the ground up with every new variant, shifting characters around in different roles in the stories. The only American equivalent I can find to this are the various versions of Rio Bravo / El Dorado / Rio Lobo with the same basic story and stock characters in each one, but John Wayne playing a different role in every film.
 And doubtlessly some fan somewhere is attempting to do exactly that…
 Though I’ll give the benefit of a doubt to a character that is revealed to be a computer simulation; maybe she was supposed to look that way deliberately.
 The synopsis makes a lot more logical sense. I get the feeling that the subtitles were done almost on the fly since they often contradict themselves and what we’re seeing on screen.
 If anybody is going to adapt Doc Smith to the screen again, it should be this team. Yowza!