Reinterpretation can often be an exciting, yet dicey thing, especially in regards to classic characters. And upon first catching the often breathtaking teasers for Shinji Aramaki’s opulent computer animated incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto’s ultimate superhero, there was already a sense that a die had been cast. That viewers were soon to be host to a darker, more action-oriented take on the revered space outlaw. And since many icons of comics past have recently seen themselves reflected upon through more challenging lenses, it seemed time to explore this spirit in a new, potentially exciting way. Which makes it all the more troubling to say that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is an ambitious, yet spectacular failure that never finds itself comfortable with this new sheen. It’s the very model of what some may dub as forced corporate tinkering, featuring the best money can buy. A souped up show vehicle with no real engine inside.
Set generations after humankind has left the cradle of Earth, and have long existed on planetary colonies elsewhere which have inevitably dried up. This inexplicable phenomenon leads to what historians call The Homecoming War, a conflict that saw millions of would-be returners unable to return to Earth. One hundred years after this costly war against the installed Communion leadership, Harlock and the crew of his legendary battleship, Arcadia have been fighting to return to Earth, even if it means to merely die there. The secrets of which lie in those fighting days, and perhaps will serve to undo the sins of the past. Meanwhile, the outer colonies dwindle as they are informed by Communion that Earth is seen as sacred ground, and cannot be repopulated.
The tale follows a pair of brothers, swearing an oath to bring down the seemingly immortal space pirate by way of sneaking one of them onto the legendary Arcadia. With the elder brother confined to a wheelchair, and connected directly to Communion’s high officials, it is up to fair-haired Yama(Haruma Miura) to take on the mission. And what he discovers upon becoming a crew member , are Harlock’s vast plans which include altering the now dwindling dominion of humanity in space, and resetting the clock to a time when all was not so lost. This “Genesis Clock” can almost instantly be interpreted as a means of nostalgia, whereas the fanatical high command seek to keep everything business as usual. These two brothers now see themselves at a crossroads as to where humankind could go. And boy, does the film never grant us any good reason for any of these choices. With a forced plot such as all resources outside of Earth are reaching dangerous lows, and a collective need to return should work poetically, but it never stops feeling forced.
Upon the Arcadia, Yama’s encounters with Harlock’s crew offer up reasons as to their defiance of his home government, which never convinces. Upon meeting crew members such as Kei Yuki(Miyuki Sawashiro), and Yattaran(Arata Furuta), we never feel the full breadth of what this means to anyone. Posturing precludes reason throughout Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi’s script, and it never becomes any clearer. Even the classic “outsider” in the ethereal alien, Miime (Yu Aoi) never grants us any better a picture as to what is at stake. In fact, the film’s title character, never gets more than a few moments to grant us something cool to look at, and never addresses what makes him so cool. It is completely unearned, and pretty much smugs all over the screen without any support. There is an almost passive aggressiveness being doled out with the character here, and it never works beyond a “deal with it” attitude. – Which is the worst thing one can do with such an icon.
We could talk all day about the film’s lack of plot clarity, and all the shifting regarding the story’s end game, and what it means for our characters. But the crucial problem that continuously dogs Harlock, is a severe dearth of character clarity. While some may adhere to what they know about the classic Matsumoto character, it is vital that any iteration retain such clarity for the ultimate story to uphold, revere, or even reflect upon him. And a great deal of the film immediately assumes that the audience requires less of this, and more an iconographic interpretation. Meaning that the imagery would sell him. And that this alone (that he is an operatic, brooding, romantic figure) is enough to carry an audience’s sympathy and support. What might have worked better here, is to use the world building as a means of winning us back into understanding Harlock’s tragic burden. But here we have a film where the title character never gets any real juice. And for a character as simple, this is a tragic mistake.
Having seen and loved many of Harlock’s adventures on film over the decades, it isn’t difficult at all to ascertain the kind of noble spirit he can be. So why is it that his big budget CG incarnation lacks any of his simple charm or sense of heroism? The film just plunks him down like an object, and we are expected to follow – no question.
As the film plods along, we are granted closer looks at the reasons behind the brothers’ mission, and how this run in with the Arcadia reshapes their views. And while this could easily have made for an interesting story, we are so bogged down by this lack of character clarity, and emphasis of plot rugby, that it never compels. After a while, all we can ascertain from these characters is that one looks like a young Harlock, while the dignitary brother is an ill-conceived sociopath. So much angst on display, and no real human drama driving it. It is so much that nearly everything outside of the mechanical design work of Atsushi Takeuchi feels overworked, and leaden. The film wants so badly to be taken seriously, but it garners none of the wistful charms nor emotional highs that adorned films such as Arcadia Of My Youth(1982), or the first Galaxy Express 999 features.
After a decade plus of productions like these, and one cannot help but come out and state that Japanese producers perhaps lack a certain grasp of balancing story with grand scale 3D computer animated projects. Unsure as to whether it happens due to a lack of proper prep time, or if they make creative decisions on the fly. Whatever the case, it is a trend that seems to allow so many of these films to be buried under the weight of their own self importance. They never seem to live beyond a need to be taken seriously via their heavy textures, and three dimensional panoramas. There is a deep need to justify the expense, and it often is the visual team’s cross to bear, as writing often takes a tragic backseat. Something that should never be the case with any production of this size. What seems to have happened here in particular, was a need to overwrite, to overemphasize. It is to the point that the film lumbers instead of soars. Baffles, instead of inspires. Too moody to be fun, and too self-conscious to be interesting. Space opera can be complex, but this is overcooked to the nth degree. You cannot Dark Knight such a romantic character unless he comes complete with morally complex baggage. Throwing it on just because that is what big films are doing today, is missing the point entirely.
It’s funny to think of this being released in the same year as a moody Superman reboot. In many ways, one can easily regard the classic Harlock as the Superman of japanese comics. And as such, he seems to have suffered a similar fate this time around. It’s a real shame, as his indomitable spirit should endure. Harlock is at his best when he sails the seas of freedom. Adding more to such simplicity just feels tacked-on. (not to mention dishonest)
The Joneses are simply not worth the backbreaking effort.