Another Captain Harlock anime from Leiji Matsumoto, the creator of some of Japan's most iconic anime. He's widely esteemed, not to say revered, but personally I'm not a huge fan. Oh, he's good. He can do some of the best tragedy in the business. However when it comes to all the bits in between, I can't say I'm convinced by how he handles characters. His villains are undercooked and annoying, his young hotheaded heroes make me want to kick in the TV and apparently his recent manga makes it look as if he's even forgotten how to write Harlock himself.
However he'll always be remembered for giving the world Harlock, Tochiro, etc. They nearly appeared in Space Battleship Yamato (77 episodes, 1980), which was famous in the US as Star Blazers and bores me to tears. The heart of Harlock's mythos will always be Space Pirate Captain Harlock (42 episodes, 1978), but plenty of other anime series since then have played fast and loose with him. The 1978 series was groundbreaking. Even now there's still no other animated series quite like it, not even in Japan. It bears serious comparison with the best SF series in any medium. However for me it's a peculiar mix of brilliance and chuckleheaded idiocy, in particular with the "kill me now" character of Tadashi Daiba. In fact I was bored by most of the cast, although Mayu was awesome.
Endless Orbit SSX is a sequel to the 1982 movie Arcadia of my Youth and almost entirely lacks everything that made the 1978 series interesting. It's kiddie-friendly. There's a cuddly crew and a couple of little kiddies aboard the Arcadia instead of anarchic pirates. The show isn't interested in tragedy. Harlock hasn't left a tiny girl in the hands of bastards. There are no armies of naked women who catch fire when you shoot them. Our heroes aren't caught between catastrophically incompetent Earth politicians and a ruthless race of alien invaders, but instead basically have to deal with a man in a 19th century Western outfit called Mr Zoun.
All these things are downsides... and yet I enjoyed this series more than its more celebrated predecessor. Do I think it's better, or even a fraction as important? Hell, no. Will the original's fans hate it with the passion of a thousand boiling suns? Quite likely. Nevertheless the fact remains that I like its crew. Tochiro's still alive at this point in the chronology, which makes the show much more fun to watch. Quite apart from being a laugh in his own right, having him around makes Harlock less broody. Maybe at times he's too much a comedy character, but I can forgive that for the Han Solo effect. Tochiro doesn't quite fit. He has a personality and he's fun to watch. He's a different voice in the story.
I also liked the scene in episode 6 where Tochiro walks away from a fight when the guy pours a drink on his head. That's something I hadn't expected in the "be a manly man and die standing like a man" Matsumotoverse.
Even Emeraldas turns up from time to time. It's almost a family. Admittedly the ship's less interesting for not being crewed by hardcore libertarian pirates, but on the other hand ten-year-old Tadashi Monono is a huge improvement on the teenaged Tadashi Daiba. Yes, he's a kid. So? He starts off trying to kill Harlock, which should endear him to anyone. Admittedly it makes the Arcadia feel less dangerous to have children aboard, but I could live with it. If the brat wants to get killed along with everyone else, let him. I didn't notice him getting mollycoddled in episode 4, for instance. He takes part in the action and has no apparent mental problems. That's enough for me. Admittedly it's harder to make a case for blonde moppet Rebi and her stupid anime voice, but personally I found her inoffensive. She's not fit to clean the shoes of Mayu from the 1978 series, but that just puts us back on level pegging in our running comparison.
Hmmm. Random thought. Why are Matsumoto's blondes less interesting than his brunettes? It's easy to see the problem with Kei Yuki of course. Matsumoto can't draw humans for shit, so her silhouette is just a vague wiggle that puts her waist somewhere up around her lower ribcage. Oh yeah, that's almost as sexy as Scary Nippleless Nudity. You won't even get that much here of course, although I should mention the first episode's huge-breasted villainess called Leotard, which is James Bond-worthy.
One thing this series has is production values. It looks great, the voice actors are great and I like the jolly music. I laugh at the title sequence every time the macho male choir sings "to live is to fight" and Harlock gives a big thumbs-up to camera. Warning: fan reactions might differ.
The problem is that the writing is mostly uninspired and has its fair share of dumb moments. There are action scenes that only work if you assume this is a Hollywood Action Hero universe, but it's fun to see Harlock killing a whole bunch of people. It's occasionally a bit ham-fisted in setting up stuff that we'd see later in the 1978 series, such Tochiro's soul in the ship's computer. The earlier series made the idea spooky, with creaking noises from a wooden sailing ship. This series actually has the computer talking in Tochiro's voice. However I can forgive that since it's only a couple of episodes at the end and it arguably makes his fate sadder to know that even after having had his physical body destroyed and his soul transferred into a machine, there would still be room for Tochiro to degenerate further.
(Footnote: I'm wrong. It seems that the computer has tended to talk more often than not both in anime and the manga, especially since the GE999 films. Whoops!)
Oh, and there's the famous last-minute wrap-up. The show got cancelled in mid-season, so after Harlock and co. have been drifting about for ages achieving absolutely nothing against the Illumidas, a bunch of aliens turn up in episode 22 and the Earth is saved. Dei don't get much more ex machina. They even use the word "goddess" to describe them. I'd known all that in advance, which probably explains why I was pleasantly surprised by what we got. Whether by accident or design, those last few episodes make a decent final stretch. We're made to wonder whether a few regulars will survive (including Tadashi!) before one of them does indeed bite the big one. It's even better for long-time fans who know the backstory and so can see it coming. They get that demise spot on, incidentally, in portraying Harlock standing by his laissez-faire principles to the bitter end. Being on the Arcadia means standing up for yourself, because no one else will do it for you. My absolute favourite thing about Harlock is the way in which he's the only fictional hero ever of a children's cartoon series whose response to "Respect my honour and let me die like a man" would be "Okay."
It sets up the 1978 series quite well, all things considered. Note: in saying this I'm overlooking a totally different continuity and backstory, not to mention questions such as when exactly Tochiro fathered Mayu. Matsumoto has never been even remotely interested in continuity, but since the beginning he's been telling the same overall story with the same characters, so the important thing is who dies rather than the impossible dating. 2977, 3004, etc.
Of course episode 22 gives us gods. So did Endless Odyssey, but those were Lovecraftian ones who wanted to eat Harlock's soul. Fortunately here the Illumidas aren't vanquished with a magic wand while our heroes stand by and watch. On the contrary, it's still down to Harlock and Emeraldas to stop Mr Zoun, so it all ends in blood. To be honest, I'm not convinced that this ending is significantly different from what the show had been planning anyway. Given that the plot of the series so far had involved directionless faffing around in a vaguely kiddie-friendly fashion, somehow I'm not crying over a missing masterpiece. Looking at the fate of other shows that got cancelled mid-flow, we're lucky to have got any wrap-up at all. I'd have been more annoyed about the abrupt ending if the Illumidas hadn't been as rubbish as all Matsumoto alien invaders, mind you.
Overall, I enjoyed this. It wears its heart on its sleeve compared with the 1978 series, but for me that's a good thing. It's more human. I don't know if I'd recommend it to an adult, but I think it would be a good children's introduction to Harlock before wheeling out the heavy stuff.