Harlock's back! Well, kinda. Franklin Herlock Jr is a gunslinger in the 1880s, roaming the Wild West with a three foot tall Japanese samurai called Tochiro and a willowy blonde called Sinunora. One day in the convoluted multiverse that lives inside Leiji Matsumoto's head, somehow they'll become legendary heroes in the 30th century. Harlock will be a one-eyed space captain. Tochiro will be dead. However here and now, they're roaming the desert, getting drunk and looking for Tochiro's missing sister.
Matsumoto loves reinventing his signature characters, but this is his most extreme attempt to date. However the surprise is that a gunslinging setting works very well for his characters, probably because the philosophy of the western fits perfectly with Matsumoto's style of storytelling. This particular corner of the West is a harsh world of exploitation and murder, where a hero had better be quick with a gun because no one's looking out for you but yourself. Personally I'm a sucker for westerns. At their best, they're the purest form of storytelling. Pure good and evil, with our lone heroes having nothing to rely on but their courage and each other. This isn't a particularly heavyweight example of the genre, but at times it has passion and genuinely powerful episodes. Four and five got to me, for instance.
The main story arc isn't as hard-hitting as the best of the one-off episodes, but it's having more fun than usual with Harlock. Tochiro not being dead yet, we get to see Harlock's goofier side as they take the piss out of each other and cause trouble wherever they go. Harlock's not yet one-eyed and brooding. Their adventures are daft, offensive and remarkably human, being much easier to relate to than Harlock usually is. To be honest the character often leaves me slightly cold, but I enjoyed him here.
The episodes are a shameless ragbag of Wild West cliches, with nasty sheriffs, noble Indians, horse thieves and stagecoach bandits. They're also based on a manga which is absolutely brimming with sex and violence. Blow jobs, rape scenes and gang bangs are just a few of the things this television series couldn't include, but what remains is still startling. Only two things let it down. NO BLOOD AND NO TITS! That's not a flippant comment, incidentally. I'm not asking for hentai, but Gun Frontier takes violent, sexy story material and emasculates it with bloodless bullet holes and scary nipple-less nudity. The result is to make the show feel slightly timid, which sits awkwardly with its brazen political incorrectness. Take the Sinonura-Tochiro relationship, for instance. Episode nine seems to imply that they're sleeping together, but that one ambiguous conversation between Harlock and Sinonura is all the evidence we ever get on the subject. Frankly it's annoying. Why's the show being so coy? It's not as if it's otherwise free of sexual content!
In fairness episode nine has nipples, but they're on a dead woman who's upside-down on a tree. I might almost have been impressed had those nipples had aureolae.
Of the modern Matsumoto revival, Cosmo Warrior Zero was badly animated but better written. This is a shallower story, albeit with powerful flashes of Matsumoto tragedy, but it's really well animated. I can't fault the production quality. Blood and tits aside (grrrr) it looks terrific, staying faithful to Matsumoto's art and potato-headed character designs while also looking crisp and visually pleasing. The painted backgrounds in particular are often beautiful. I also like the music, which does surprising things with electric guitars. Oh, and Tochiro's sister Shizuku is genuinely cute, which I hadn't expected. Amusingly it surprises Harlock as well, who like me had been expecting another three-foot-high knock-kneed mutant. She reminds me of Mayu in the 1978 Space Pirate Captain Harlock series, though that was Tochiro's daughter rather than his sister.
The dub is good too. Harlock's again being played by David Lucas with his lazy sarcastic drawl, while Tochiro for once doesn't sound like Roger Rabbit. The supporting cast ham up the Western cliches and it's all lots of campy fun. The DVD extras also include outtakes, which for once have some actual comedy among the usual lame voice fluffs. Disc three has the best zingers. Personally I'm a purist for the original Japanese dub, but I've been told that this show is funnier in English.
This show tends to play for laughs, although it gets serious after a while. Nevertheless the characters are likeable and amusing, almost to a fault. There's probably a word for Sinonura, the lightning rod for political incorrectness, while Harlock and Tochiro are just a pair of kids sometimes. I also loved the resonance of the scene where Harlock muses about sailing across the stars.
Overall I'd rate this as fun rather than classic. There's powerful drama tucked away in the middle episodes, but frankly the three lead characters are comic relief. The show sometimes made me feel for Tochiro, but he's such a goofball that tragedy has a reduced shelf life where he's concerned. I'd also knock off a few points for the ending... not just the strangely undramatic cliffhanger, but also the pointless complications regarding Sinonura's real mission. They didn't have time to go anywhere with it, so why bother? Besides, Sinonura's secrets were getting kinda dull by then anyway.
This may be a patchy and often shallow series, but it takes a bizarre and counterintuitive set-up and really makes it work. It's never less than watchable... and a couple of its episodes I love.