“People call me Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!”

November 21st, 2011 by | Tags:

Y’all remember Apollo Smile?

1998, man. For some reason, I thought this was earlier, like ’92 or ’94, but my memory of childhood is mush.

Anyway, this week in 1998 was when I was introduced to Leiji Matsumoto by way of Galaxy Express 999. I remember being sort of frustrated by Galaxy Express 999 at first. It probably didn’t come out of the gate swinging like Ninja Scroll or 8-Man, and I mean, I was like fourteen. Introspection? Slow burns? Trains in space? How about we leave that talky-talk garbage in books where it belongs, buddy?

I think my uncle must’ve been into it, though, because I remember watching it all the way through. I haven’t seen it in years, so the details are fuzzy. There’s this itch to create a narrative where there probably wasn’t one–“I saw GE999 and hated it until I fell in love with Leiji Matsumoto’s work!”–but I do remember eventually coming around to the film. It’s not a movie I would put on just to listen to, like I would with Ninja Scroll or Akira. I don’t remember ever dubbing it from a Blockbuster tape or anything like I did everything else. But it was Captain Harlock and some of the weirder imagery that really hooked me. Space trains are whatever, but space pirates? That’s the business. Harlock was the man, and I fell in love with his logo, too.

Maetel is another really strong part of GE999. Her design is really simple, with basically three strong colors: a little skin, a lot of blonde, and a mass of black. She’s got enormous eyes, too. There’s this whole femme fatale thing in her design. The black completely covers her body and maintains a certain level of mystery, but also danger, I think. You don’t know what’s under there. She has a kind face, and her long, flowing hair is clearly meant to be beautiful. But then there’s all that black sitting there like an unasked question you don’t want to know the answer to.

I remember specific aspects of Galaxy Express 999 better than I do the actual film. Harlock’s skull, Maetel’s creepily quiet beauty, and the train arcing through space most of all. It’s a weird place to be in, because it makes every conversation I have about the series suspect. What happened at the end? Who knows? I assume Harlock shoots someone with his sword and then they all get on a train and leave. But I think there’s still value in having memories that are bits and pieces of things I like. I don’t think I can actually overstate how much I like Harlock’s emblem and Maetel’s design, you know? It’s one of those things that’s fundamental for me.

Hulu put up a lot of Matsumoto-related stuff at some point. They’ve got nine episodes of the Galaxy Express 999 TV series, The Galaxy Railways, Gun Frontier, and most importantly, Captain Harlock. I’ve been watching it over the past couple weeks. Not a lot–an episode before bed, another on a Saturday after breakfast but before a nap. I’m a handful of episodes in, and it’s nice to do something other than binging on a series or waiting desperately for the next episode.

“The Jolly Roger That Flutters Through Space”–all of the episode titles are really good, incidentally, especially “The Castle of Evil in the Sea of Death”–is the first episode, and it pretty much sets the tone for the series. Harlock is wanted by the united government of Earth because he’s a pirate. His ship is the Arcadia. He sips red wine out of a goblet from a chair while gazing upon the vastness of space and thinking thoughts too big for us. Sometimes he stands at a window. Kei Yuki, the ship’s XO, keeps Arcadia running, because it’s staffed entirely by children and insane sitcom characters. Harlock has a warm heart inside his cold demeanor, and he’ll stick by his friends. He has a small orphan girl for a friend, Mayu, the daughter of a dead comrade. The government knows that Mayu has a connection to Harlock, but never do much more than send her to her room or bully her if she doesn’t summon him.

The first episode is pretty good, and has aged better than I expected (but still not all that well, it’s from the ’70s). The second episode, “A Message From The Unknown,” is where it really gets going, though. Harlock tries to prevent an enormous meteor from hitting the Earth. He fails, and his ship is almost wrecked because of it. He disengages and watches the sphere fall directly onto a city. Fire blasts through the streets, a few bodies flash to ash, and the majority of the city is destroyed. The narrator downplays it, and no one really talks about the people who clearly just died. It’s pretty wild.

“A Woman Who Burns Like Paper”, episode 3, tops even that. Dr. Daiba meets a member of the Mazone and gets lasered to death. She zaps him once, and we see the exit wound and his long, slow, horrible fall to the ground. I don’t know if they were trying to play for time or what, but he spends almost an entire minute dying. The entire sequence is pretty stunning, from a craft point of view. The way the Mazone’s hair falls over her eyes while she smiles her cruel smile. The way the palette flashes to white once the gun goes off. The way his scream turns into a haunting soundtrack and becomes a reverbed out wail by the time he hits the ground. His red eyes. The Mazone super-imposed over the scene, above Daiba’s body. The way his whole body shreds as he falls. 10:30, when the camera splits up like a comic book and shows us slightly different angles of his fall. It’s like he’s falling through time.

(Actually, come to think of it, if the split-screen dividers are viewed as comics panels, then he is literally falling through time. We just can’t see the gutters. He’s falling right to left, too, which is how you read Japanese comics. He’d probably fall left to right if this were an American production.)

It’s like someone on the staff saw “Dr. Daiba gets shot with a laser, dies” in the script and had a bunch of free time to storyboard it up real special. He’s got an art–or maybe film, both apply–degree, by gum, and he’s gonna use it, right? And the results are pretty good, I’d say. It really livens up the scene, and this scene, including the bit where the Mazone burns blue, is really the centerpiece of the episode.

Every couple episodes, something like this happens. There’s either some really well-animated sequence, some really solid visual comedy, or really strong imagery to tie it all together and elevate the series. It’s a slow series, as you might have guessed from the fact that the bad guys show up three episodes in and aren’t explained for one or two more, but it’s a comfortable kind of slow. It’s a confident kind of slow. There’s a point, and they have some room to breathe before it becomes a driving concern.

An episode here and an episode there is really the best way to watch this show. It prevents it from blurring into a pleasant mush (like Party Down did when I watched it in a few fat bursts last week) and gives the really good bits time to digest.

(Another good bit: Mayu running alongside the Arcadia during the end credits.)

I only have the vaguest memories of his MO, but nothing in this show has been an unpleasant surprise. He makes the moody space pirate thing work. It’s interesting that he’s portrayed as a brooding, older man. He gives off the feeling of being older, or at least world-weary. He puts me in mind of Robert Mitchum maybe, especially as he was in Out of the Past, or maybe Tatsuya Nakadai could do it. The current mode for brooding heroes runs much younger and prettier. Sasuke from Naruto, or I dunno, one of them Gundam Wing dudes or InuYasha. You know the type I mean. Harlock can’t be a young actor. He’s got to be seasoned. The other guys, you would cast them young.

It’s nice to see that the Harlock material is still so strong. I never got a chance to properly get into it, barring an abiding love for its iconography, and this trip through his origins has been a good one.

Bonus round: Kanji Tatsumi from Persona 4, a true-blue Son of Harlock, a Leiji Matsumoto tumblr with some nice art, and a bootleg of the trailer for the CG movie that theoretically hits in 2012:

How weird is it to see a sexed up Kei Yuki? I mean, I assume that that’s what she would have looked like in real life, but Matsumoto’s original version was nicer. According to wiki, these guys worked on it:

Mobile Suit Gundam UC author Harutoshi Fukui, Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki, Appleseed mechanical designer Atsushi Takeuchi, and Ninja Scroll character designer Yutaka Minowa worked on the new Space Pirate Captain Harlock pilot with Marza Animation Planet (formerly known as Sega Sammy Visual Entertainment).

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8 comments to ““People call me Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!””

  1. The first version of Harlock was brilliant. I like it even better than Yamato, to be honest.

  2. My introduction to Captain Harlock came by way of the theatrical film My Youth in Arcadia, which was released in the US under a variety of titles and edits before a proper uncut and subtitled edition was released on VHS and later DVD as Arcadia of My Youth. Alas, that’s years and years out of print at this point.

    Captain Harlock’s second appearance for me was by way of the two Galaxy Express 999 movies that matter. If you find yourself wanting some theatrical-caliber Arcadia (or leading ladies inspired by German actress Marianne Hold), those films were JUST re-released on DVD by Discotek Media, a small media outfit consisting literally of like, two guys who struck a deal with Toei and have been releasing all kinds of crazy stuff from their archives nobody else dares to touch. Stuff like the entire original Fist of the North Star TV series and movie, along with other 1990s-era Sci-Fi Channel anime classics like Project A-Ko and Demon City Shinjuku. Essential building blocks of adolescence, those.

  3. You’re in my brain. I’ve been thinking a lot about Harlock, Galaxy Express ect. the last few weeks. Galaxy Express was one of my first animes, and I had pretty much the same reaction you did. I kept expecting ninjas or robot fights. The characters just look like they would do something cool.

    I’m also watching Harlock piece by piece on Hulu as well. Good looking out on the Leiji tumblr.

  4. As coincidence would have it, I have the DVDs for “Galaxy Express 999” and “Adieu Galaxy Express 999” on my Christmas wishlist this year. The price has gone back up at DeepDiscount.com, but they were selling for $10.69 about a week ago.

    Anyway, during the 7th or 8th grade, around the same time that Robotech hit the airwaves, “Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years” made its debut in Chicago. It was my first introduction to the world of Harlock. Several years later, I saw “My Youth in Arcadia” as a rental and became a true fan; by the time I saw “Galaxy Express 999” during my late twenties, Harlock and the gang felt like long lost friends, and the movie itself was a space-spanning adventure for me.

    As far as “Ninja Scroll” goes, as hardcore an anime fan as I have been and am, that’s the one title that never hit me the way it seems to have hit others. When I finally got around to seeing it seven or eight years ago, I sat wondering afterward what all the hubbub was about. Different (sword) strokes, for different folks, perhaps.

  5. My Youth in Arcadia is one of the finest anime ever made. And one of the bleakest things ever.

  6. Apollo Smile? Damn David… I see her every couple of months when I pop in the tape I made of the Sci-Fi Summer Anime MovieFest. *Sigh* Now that anime is totally phased out of SyFy for more ‘reality’ programming….

    Quick weird note: I always thought that Big O by Cartoon Network was a mashup homage of Galaxy Express, Batman, and Gigantor because of the character/art designs. Everytime I saw Roger and Angel together, it felt like Bruce Wayne romancing Maetel.

    Captain Harlock is like Errol Flynn playing Jack Sparrow with the demurity of Jack Nichelson….

  7. I was introduced the GE999 movies the same way, though I loved them immediately. Even with his brief involvement, Harlock stood out. He’s something of the old ideal of manhood: stoic, loyal and direct, with unshakable conviction. He knows what he needs to do and does it. Period.

    I’d also recommend Arcadia of my Youth, but as mentioned above, it’s not likely to be easy to track down. That movie is so manly, I think testosterone was used in the film developing process. It also seems like it’s ending several times, only to keep on going, though the whole thing was pretty good so I didn’t mind.

    One last interesting things about Harlock I’d like to mention is that Leiji Matsumoto actually got the jump on the current trend of near simultaneous English releases of manga on the web. All the way back in the late ’90s, Harlock Saga was available online as a web comic. Sadly, the site is long gone, and I don’t think the English version was ever released in print. Still, I have fond memories of reading about Harlock (and Harlock’s father) kicking ass in my dorm room in college.

  8. Thank you, David! I watched Gun Frontier a few years ago on Hulu, but I wasn’t sure if the other Harlock stuff was worth watching. Now I see I have it a bit backwards, so thanks.