Space Pirate Captain Harlock
Directed by: Shinji Aramaki
Toei Animation Company
I’ll begin by prefacing this review with the following disclaimer: Though I am a long time fan of Japanese animation, I am only marginally acquainted with the exploits of the renowned Captain Harlock. So, despite a few run-ins with later incarnations of the show, I was largely unfamiliar with the rich history behind this latest release in Leiji Matsumoto’s beloved series. This, however, afforded me the luxury of enjoying the movie through the eyes of the uninitiated. I went in with none of the foreknowledge or intimacy that have made viewing so many reinterpretations of beloved properties a disappointing affair. (Take note, brave reader, that the use of the word “disappointing” was for your benefit, as I could have flung far more vitriol in my concession.) I will, however, admit to expecting a visual feast. Trailers for the movie had been making the rounds for months (nearly a year, to be honest) prior to its worldwide release on Netflix and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the beauty of these encapsulated previews.
Certainly, in this respect, Space Captain Harlock delivers. And while the film is not entirely devoid of merit otherwise, it is here where the strongest argument can be made for recommending it. That said, before this review goes any further, I believe it would only prudent to make mention that the movie is available in two flavors: your standard run-of-the-mill 2D and super-exciting 3D. Because I am old and suffer from a gross inability to stomach the marvel of the third dimension, I selected the former of the two formats. Additionally, I opted to watch the movie with its original Japanese audio track. It has been my experience that subtitled versions of such releases tend to be a bit more faithful to the original script than their dubbed counterparts.
The technical achievement on display here, both in terms of design and execution, rivals anything we’ve seen from the medium to date. The original hand-animated material makes the transition to CGI with absolutely no trouble. Space Pirate Captain Harlock’s (SPCH) environments, its people, its places and its objects are all meticulously rendered and recreated for the big screen. Nowhere does this attention pay off more than in the action scenes – of which there are many. This is important not only because they are so frequent, but because so many other CGI intensive movies get this wrong. (I’m looking at you, Bayformers.) While the kinetic nature of these scenes could have easily made them an unviewable mess, SPCH’s are so well done and choreographed that it is never difficult to tell what is going on. In fact, it is this mastery of animation that makes knocking the movie’s plot a true shame.
While the movie is a visual treat, I’m hard-pressed to recommend it based on its story. The movie takes place some time in the distant past or future – it’s never made clear. (This ambiguity in the time line is done on purpose, I believe, and plays well into the ending of the movie.) Man, in an attempt to prolong his own existence, has fled a resource-exhausted Earth in search of more hospitable lands. For reasons not fully explored, this exodus fails and several hundred billion humans attempt to return to their home planet. This sudden repatriation prompts a terrible conflict referred to as “The Homecoming War”. It ends unfavorably for the aforementioned refugees and, ultimately, no one is allowed back. The Earth becomes a protected land under the near-fascist control of a governing body called the Gaia Communion.
This grim history serves as the backdrop for a film that tells the tale of an immortal space pirate who leads a cadre of like minded men and women yearning for freedom aboard their intergalactic battleship, the Arcadia. We view this world from several different perspectives, though most notably from those of the eponymous captain and a recent recruit to the ship who goes by the name of Logan. Beyond this, the narrative is propelled by a shared history between Logan and the Communion and the conflict that results from it. There are a few neat touches here and there and the “plot twist” is executed well enough, but you kind of get the feeling that much of what made the good Captain interesting was left on the pages of its source material. Largely, it is an unremarkable tale that never truly treads any new ground. Despite this, the movie is not unwatchable – it is certainly worth a glance or two from even the marginally curious.
I imagine that while fans of the original series, or even the more recent Endless Odyssey, will be somewhat let down by this release, I firmly believe that the casual fan will find enough here to warrant the price of admission. (It is certainly more entertaining than a fair number of other titles available on Netflix.) Space Pirate Captain Harlock is a beautifully animated movie that suffers from an average, perhaps needlessly convoluted, plot. In the end though, it is done well enough to make you curious about the world it is trying to sell despite this flaw.