Tag Archives: Space Opera

How To Muddle A Rebellion: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

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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.

Through Older Lenses: Yamato 2199 Episodes 1-3 – The Long Journey..And Then Some.

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After nearly a year of theatrical releases (which are continuing as of this date), as well as sell-out launches on home media, Yutaka Izibuchi’s big budget update of Uchu Senkan Yamato has finally come to broadcast screens via MBS(Mainichi Broadcasting System). A penultimate evergreen of televised and theatrical anime, the classic space epic has seen itself celebrated and reinvented more than once before, but never with such grandeur, and such a sense of momentum this side of the original movie releases that began back in the summer of 1977. It’s safe to say that I have been following to the best of my ability, the parade and anticipation of this particular run as the original series remains centrally important to my own interest in anime as a medium, and as a lover of classical science fiction. Not unlike globally acclaimed phenomena such as Lord Of The Rings, or even Star Wars, the tale of Yamato’s great gamble to save the blue Earth is possibly Japan’s most universal, and even perhaps most personal legend brought to cel animation. So it goes without saying that in this era of a jazzed-up Star Trek, a few words would inevitably have to be shared about this update.

So what I propose, is not a simple episodic review column. But more like an overview of episode clusters, where this new legend can be seen with fresher eyes, without the ever present spectre of the original series hovering over. We’ll be giving impressions on the series in the format in which they were shown to audiences in Japanese theatres. As an enduring lover of the original, it feels only appropo that we peer into this alternate telling of the search for Iscandar as one would look at how a modern artist would pay tribute/respond to a legendary painter, or even musician. With openness to new voices, and a reverence for what the current world has to offer a familiar mythology. The original Yoshinobu Nishizaki/Leiji Matsumoto saga will always be, but Yamato:2199 must stand on its very own, and to that, let us commence.

The last time I had written a little on the series, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was more overcome by the sheer magnitude of the event. It’s fair to say that for me, it was something of an oasis to consider the return of Captain Okita, and his gallant crew to the animated world. So what I hope to do, is to do away with mere nostalgia clouding my sight, and just call it as a singular new event all its own.

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For those unfamiliar, Yamato weaves the saga of an ongoing mission by a select number of brave souls tasked with taking a once lost battleship deep into space in hopes of saving Earth from relentless radiation attacks by the fearsome alien force known only as Gamilas. Their only lead, an alien transmission, offering plans for a device capable of cleaning the planet’s surface. The only problems? Distance versus time. Roughly one hundred days remain before certain ahnilation, and the Gamilas armadas aren’t letting the intrepid crew of the Yamato have an easy time of seeking the planet, Iscandar. The place in which the humanity’s apparent salvation resides. It is in the determined spirit of one Captain Okita, and the fortitude of his diverse & largely youthful crew, that what remains of the human race must depend. But the journey is fraught with perils and unknowns. Worse yet, time is running out.

The story begins..

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Episode 1: Messenger From Iscandar

Opening at the Second Battle Of Mars, where we are thrust headlong into the conflict which gives us our first glimpse of the aging captain, his relationship with one Captain Mamoru Kodai, and the fate of the Yukikaze. The confidence in which this opener establishes itself is the kind of surehandedness that is often rare by anime TV standards, and deserves recognition, even if it seems on the surface as simple and atypical of an establishment scene. So much is employed here, that it’s very apparent that this project is looking to be remembered as a labor of love. The almost old-fashioned romance of naval conflict is paid tribute as the Gamiras advance takes its toll on the human forces, leading certain characters toward what seems to be an inevitable conclusion. Taking an almost cel-animation aim toward the CG makes for an interesting marriage of schools that leaves both good and not so good impressions. (which I’ll get to later) The drama of the sequence is only made more potent by knowing that the real purpose of this battle is in the name of a mission in order to retrieve a message from an alien emissary.

Young officer, Susumu Kodai, and his optimistic buddy Daisuke Shima are on the surface of Mars, awaiting first contact while unbeknownst to them, the UN Cosmo forces keep the enemy at bay above. Even as Kodai and Shima find themselves capable of merely retrieving the message, the female alien ambassador was unable to survive her ship’s descent from space. Compounding matters, is the revelation that Kodai is unaware that his elder brother , the captain of the Yukikaze, is on the verge of meeting with destiny. Lives and discoveries converge, and a mild glimmer of hope for a dying planet finally seems within reach. That is, if the younger Kodai can keep his composure toward longtime veteran, Okita regarding the fate of the Yukikaze. Instantly, we have a classic father/son conflict amidst this galaxy-spanning conflict, and we have a shining tribute to anime at its most romantic.

The initial episode has quite a deal to lay out for viewers, and for the most part it gels tremendously by weaving heavy animation detail with impeccable writing and direction. While perhaps not the kind of storytelling more current anime fans may be accustomed to, its pretty refreshing to experience an A to B story executed in such a deft manner. It’s all deceptively simplistic, and yet that’s something most appropriate for such a tale. With effective speed, we are given glimpses into the world, while offering up classic character archetypes and conflicts with equal ease. If anyone gets short shrift in this initial episode, it is perhaps the role of Yuki Mori, who is now of greater import in the chain of command. Turns out they resorted toward making her yet into yet another quasi-tsunderoid, which is kind of a shame. It’s a mild misstep that could be rectified in future installments, but it kind of stands out as a bit of a step-forward-step-back for a character that deserves a just a little more complexity.

In all, Messenger is a solidly executed pilot episode that dodges the many pratfalls that to this day dog most initial installments.

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Episode 2: Toward A Sea Of Stars..

Upon discovering that the Gamilas have been reconning the Earth for what seems to be the remains of a long-ago sunken battleship, it is not long before all eyes turn to the hulking Yamato as the one last possible savior for the once blue planet and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, on Pluto..military leaders of the Gamilas have their worries confirmed, and chart a course to destroy the newly dusted off and retrofitted Space Battleship before it even leaves the ground. Meanwhile, the mission begins as we learn that the deceased alien ambassador Starsha left with the humans, a message containing their offering of salvation lying 168,000 light years away, within the Large Magellanic Cloud–The planet, Iscandar. Another revelation is dropped upon us that Starsha had originally sent her sister, Yurisha a year prior in secret with plans for the Dimensional Wave Motion Engine, to be used within one specially fitted space cruiser, good enough to handle the difficult voyage ahead.

Thus, the long ballyhooes Izumo Plan suddenly transitions into..The Yamato Plan.

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Yes. Exposition heavy, and plot-obsession is on call for Sea Of Stars, which gives us an even better glance at who will become our respective crew members, and their positions with impressive brevity. There’s clearly so much to be told in this telling, that it becomes expected that things would be rushing toward the manning of the ship, and as such, we only spend so much time with even major characters at this point. Kodai & Shima are tapped as important personnel, while we get more of a clearer look at the diversity, and breadth of those who have loved ones staying behind. If there is any real trouble with this episode, it’s that it never gives enough temerity to how desperate the situation is on a more personal level. The crew just needs to assemble and get going, so we get often all-too-brief looks at family members who’s lives will be hanging in the balance. Worthy of note, we get our first real moments with Engineering Head, the old-fashioned Tokugawa, and Science Chief & Second In Command, Sanada (Who remains a favorite in the original,btw), and we do get another quiet moment between Kodai and Okita before things start intensifying again as the Gamilas attempt to stop the Yamato from beginning its mission.

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In summation for this one, there is simply so much foundation to lay out before launch. And that’s kind of amazing that it works at all.

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Episode 3: Escaping The Mars Sphere

After proving its mettle on the ground, the Yamato and her crew are quickly faced with staunch resistance by the Gamilas as they make their first attempts at warp speed, leading them into a trap. A trap called Jupiter.

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Shooting face first into pure business, action and heart..Mars Sphere is pretty much classic space opera of the first order. With the crew knowing full well that their gift from Iscandar must be used to its fullest potential, they are also mostly young and unsure of what to do with their newfound power. On one hand, we have the abiltity to achieve Faster Than Light travel, which can allow them to reach Iscandar in under (hopefully) one earth year. And on the other, which comes at the latter half of the episode, they also have in their grasp, a weapon of terrifying power. On top of all of this, we are given a brief look into the world of the Gamilas, and the reality that not everything in this conflict is as simple as rudimentary good vs. evil.

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It’s a pretty busy episode that eases nicely into an old school quest series format by offering up equal doses of action and exposition, topped with a great understanding of the sentiments that made the original so powerful. We finally see what the Yamato is truly capable of in more than one way, which offers up some more than welcome subtext as the cast fills out a few more new vital spaces in the crew. We are better introduced to Technology Department head, Niimi, who’s vital to this episodes expositional needs, doles out the science of FTL travel, while the clearly pilot-like Yamamoto is deferred to an accounting desk (in a half-clever setup for future episodes). We even finally get our first real meeting with the IQ-9 robotic unit most affectionately known as Analyzer, a plucky, often humanlike machine with a deep need to prove his worth on the ship. Once the Yamato completes their first jump, and the ship & crew finds themselves eyeballs deep in Gamilas territory, the series essentially slams the pedals with tension, and enough introspection on the crews part to make this more than an authentic nod to elder lovers of anime storytelling. (Strange how this can be seen as refreshing now, but it is.) Kudos also go to a series that takes the extra time to quiet moments such as Yuki honoring the lost, as other main characters consider the temerity of their mission as they gaze out onto the once vibrant blue planet.

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And while the initial three episodes of Yamato 2199 bring with them much to celebrate, there are small things here and there in which I hope are given additonal consideration. Primarily, when considering the state-of-the-art, the presentation can be seen as both a gift and curse. Mostly in the way that most modern anime produced with heavy CG and cel-shaded coloring, there is a high emphasis on fine details which wasn’t nearly as possible in the past. Mechanical and costume designs are nothing less than top notch. The flip side to this (of course), is a lack of painter’s grit. There is something we simply cannot achieve in the current state, which is a loving sense of the handmade. Something I feel is essential in creating a sense of human warmth to the more somber aspects of the story. As well-composed as this series is, it can be a little more clinical than preferred. I understand that this is merely me being nostalgic, but there is something deeply impactful about the handmade that is a massive part of Yamato’s enduring appeal. Do I believe it is still possible? Probably not yet. But it does feel as if cast and crew have been more than ready to dish out the best product imaginable with this opening trio.

The only other real gripes I have at the moment (of course-again), is in the new crew members. While it is definitely welcome to consider new and important roles on the ship being undertaken by women, it does reek of the times, and it never really figures out a way to write itself out of this. Izibuchi has been capable of creating believable female characters in positions of high responsibility before, but here it almost cannot override a sense of business obligation. And while Yamamoto’s role setup is an interesting one that could go into some positive places for the series, one cannot help but feel like it’s business as usual(IE-Mari & the cult of Pizza Hut/Lawsons) with these new characters. Thankfully, we have yet to see Analyzer’s less than flattering sides, so there is still a bit more worry regarding this. Even in the far future of 2199, certain acts should be considered criminal.
Ensign Harada had better watch out..

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