Earth is under attack from the Mazone, an alien race that resembles beautiful women although technically they're plants. Unfortunately Earth's government is corrupt and complacent. Nobody is willing to do anything, except for a handful of lone voices who are being assassinated one by one. One day Daiba comes home to find his father killed by the Mazone, but nobody on Earth will even listen to him. To avenge his father's death, he joins the crew of the legendary space pirate Captain Harlock, a man feared by even the Mazone Queen Lafresia herself.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Harlock in anime. His classic 1978 TV series still hasn't reached the West without being butchered beyond recognition by bad dubbing or editing, but he's the signature character of one of anime's grand old men. He's cropped up repeatedly over the years, usually in shows that are irreconcilable with each other continuity-wise. Nevertheless his creator Leiji Matsumoto has gone on record as saying that they're all basically one story even if one minute Harlock, Tochiro, etc. are 19th century gunslingers and the next they're 30th century space pirates. He puts it down to some kind of fate or cosmic resonance. The Harlock-ography includes:
- 1. Space Pirate Captain Harlock (42 episodes, 1978). The original classic.
- 2. Arcadia of my Youth (1982 movie). Epic origin story, which spawned...
- 3. Arcadia of my Youth: Endless Orbit SSX (22 episodes, 1984). A train wreck, cancelled halfway through.
- 4. Harlock Saga (6 episodes, 1999), aka. "What's Opera, Harlock". An OVA retelling based on the first part of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Pretty horrible, but it kick-started the modern Matsumoto wave.
- 5. Cosmo Warrior Zero (15 episodes, 2000). In this one, Harlock's the villain!
- 6. Gun Frontier (13 episodes, 2002). Starring Harlock and Tochiro, but set in the Wild West in the 1880s. If you buy into Matsumoto's cosmic resonance theories, this might be where it all began.
- 7. Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey (13 episodes, 2002). Remake-cum-sequel to the original 1978 series, pitting Herlock (sic) against a bunch of Lovecraftian Old Ones. More horror-themed than previous entries.
Also important are Galaxy Express 999 (113 episodes, 1978) and Queen Emeraldas (4 episodes, 1998). Those aren't strictly speaking Harlock series, but they're part of the Matsumoto-verse and he's in them.
Here however I'm discussing the original. For ages I couldn't nail what wasn't grabbing me about Space Pirate Captain Harlock. It has some superb episodes and a passable story arc that's loosely tying them together. Its use of tragedy and psychological trauma might be unique. Its backstory is good. Its characters are okay. Fans might call them "iconic" or "archetypes", whereas the rest of us might instead put them on a scale from "slightly silly but entertaining" to "annoying shit-for-brains". Unfortunately most of the cast is basically window-dressing. In the hope of clarifying things a tad, here's the Idiot's Guide to Captain Harlock.
"Main dude's Harlock. He's self-destructive and broody, but that's fine because he shoots people and blows up shit. That said, he's got his 'Check Me Out I'm Immune To Everything Because I'm Cool' switch turned up too high. In a less dumb-ass universe this dude would be toast. A half vulture half daddy-long-legs sits on his shoulder and probably craps down his back, but we never see that. Harlock's also gay, though he never 'fessed up to his dead friend Tochiro because it was all unrequited and shit. The deceased didn't bat on the same team when he was alive anyway, what with fathering a daughter, the bastard.
"Harlock visits Earth regularly to check out his favourite panty-flasher, but things wouldn't go that way even if he were straight because she's only five years old. She's called Mayu and she's that daughter I spoke of. She rocks. You also get the idea that she'll be worth knowing when she's legal, if you know what I mean, unlike the show's supposedly hot chicks who look dull as hell even when naked.
"That's all the folks who matter. From time to time you'll also see a bunch of losers cluttering up the screen, but they ain't worth shit. 'Specially Daiba. If I were Harlock I'd have shoved him out an airlock, but maybe some kind of, uh, compensation thing's going on."
Okay, Finn's back. I also promise to make no more jokes about Harlock's sexuality, except maybe regarding the bit in episode 4 where a professor does some romantic hand-holding with Daiba before getting tearful about men in make-up and high heels. Oh, and also the line in episode 30 which briefly appears to be saying that Harlock and Tochiro conceived Mayu together through the miracle of man-love. "So that was it. Then after a while they had Mayu." However it seems that Matsumoto repudiates any such suggestion and there's no such subtext in his original manga. Even in the anime it's only a faint hint.
Anyway, I was talking about the characters. Putting aside Daiba for a moment, the big problem is that the ship's crew are exactly that: a crew. They're all happy aboard the Arcadia. They don't want anything. Their relationships don't go anywhere. They're stable. Theoretically they should all be good characters, but the storytelling reduces them to little more than cogs and wheels. You could make the ship fully automated with almost no effect on the series, which as a bonus would stop the narrator from blathering on about "the indomitable will of forty crewmen". The story roles of all the ship's crew put together are less interesting than that of the ship's computer!
Every so often someone gets an episode all to themselves. Tragedy will inevitably ensue, usually with lots of backstory that makes no difference to anything. It'll be good stuff. Hell, it'll be fantastic , but it's just a random throwaway and next week they'll be back to their usual "Yes Captain There's Something On The Radar Captain".
 - except for Masu-san's tragic backstory, which is hilarious.
Nothing matters. It's like the anti-Buffy or the anti-Harry Potter. When I follow those series, I'm really following the characters and so the precise details of their latest adventure are just a bonus. Here it's the opposite. I don't care about the characters, so even a powerful episode (of which there are plenty) doesn't make me want to keep watching.
The only ongoing character who inspires any emotional connection isn't even on the ship. Mayu's fantastic. I'd go so far as to say that Mayu saves the show. Things pick up when the Mazone kidnap her, after which the show finds a sort of momentum and sustains it to the end. It helps that by then the Mazone are suffering precisely the kind of interpersonal dynamics that I've bewailed the lack of on the Arcadia, so if you don't care about the heroes at least there's a bit of humanity on display from the aliens.
Apart from Harlock himself, the only exception to this rule is Daiba. (What's Kei's main personality trait? She's, uh, blonde. Yeah, that's it. And anyone two feet tall is just comic relief until their Token Spotlight Episode, after which they become comic relief again.) However Daiba should be interesting. He actually wants something (revenge) and he's prepared to disobey orders and act like a suicidal jerk in pursuit of this. He's another of Matsumoto's heroic young hotheads, like Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato, whom I also hated. Daiba's a loser! Put it this way... I was never troubled by the Mazone's failure to kill Daiba a million times over in episode 11, since it's clearly more damaging to leave him alive on the ship. In episode 23 I dared to hope he'd died, but sadly not. Oh, and episode 28 had a terrifying moment where I thought that Daiba would get a girlfriend and breed. Anything would be better than that, even the episode's actual outcome of creating the Planet of the Incestuous Inbred.
Nevertheless Daiba's mental problems do have a kind of car-crash fascination. In one episode he commits gratuitous murder, gets brain damage and regresses to infancy. That was the point where I realised that this show wasn't playing by the usual cartoon rules. He recovers disappointingly quickly, but even so that's a huge departure from the norm for space opera. I also enjoyed Harlock's "sink or swim" attitude to the lad. Let him make his own mistakes and if this ends in hideous catastrophe, well, that's Harlock for you. Besides, if Daiba dies it's only Daiba.
This is good stuff... in the beginning. Later Daiba becomes saner and duller, degenerating into Just Another Crewmember. He gets a flash of his old revenge obsession in the penultimate episode, but by then he's a shadow of his former self.
Apart from all that, the show's great.
Its animation is dated, but that doesn't make it bad. On the contrary, it often manages some terrific visuals, e.g. episode 13 in Egypt. Although amusingly Harlock wears his usual heavy cloak and gloves but no hat while trekking across the friggin' desert, then keeps the same outfit for the following episode at the North Pole! Hmmmm... I promised no more gay jokes. There's also lots of violence and nudity, though regarding the latter it's a shame that Matsumoto's willowy woman stereotype is so completely un-sexy. I blame their breasts. No human never had boobs like that, not even California-dwelling silicon freaks. They're like Barbie dolls.
The storytelling knows no fear. It's extremely violent, with Harlock likely to shoot first and not even bother asking questions later. It's outlaw morality. Harlock does whatever the hell he wants and doesn't worry about the body count. Matsumoto isn't afraid to show psychologically damaged or suicidal characters, which gives the show a harder edge. There's also stinging condemnation of Earth's government, though I don't know if this was meant to have any real-world parallel or not.
The Mazone play into all kinds of "Elsa She-Vixen of the SS" evil dominatrix stereotypes, which is a laugh. In fact I thought it was a mistake when the show eventually showed male Mazone. It diminished their mystique. We'd already seen that they're plants which don't reproduce like we do, so why should they have our gender divisions in the first place? However it's possible that I was wrong and that those aren't Mazone. Subject races like the Tokargans are also part of the fleet's caravan.
Overall, this show has some heartrending episodes but never connects its story arc to its characters. Sometimes things move forward satisfactorily, but half of the show (unfortunately coming in a big block around the middle of the run) kinda stagnates. Also Matsumoto handles impersonal space fleets and battle strategy about as well as you can handle that kind of thing, says someone who's emphatically not a fan. Nevertheless it is a good show. I've grumbled about it, but it has some individual episodes as powerful as anything I've seen in anime. The ending is great, with even an unresolved teaser about Queen Lafresia, and I loved Mayu. It's also uniquely ambitious, doing things with camera angles, animation technique and sheer chutzpah that would be astonishing in any animated series, let alone one from 1978. Sometimes it's deliberately cartoonish, but it's always pushing the boundaries. Not always a successful series, but in its own way an astonishing one.