Anime Review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978)

I’m something of a fan of Leiji Matsumoto’s work, and particularly the character of Captain Harlock. Harlock made his first appearance as a supporting character in Matsumoto’s other major series from the 1970s – Galaxy Express 999. However, he was popular enough to get his own series in its own separate continuity in 1978. I figured I might as well give my thoughts on the show.

The premise of Harlock ’78 is that Harlock (as you can tell from the title) is a Space Pirate, who has rejected Earth due to its corruption and decadence, but still has some ties because his old friend Tochiro, (who spends most of the series unnamed and who built the Arcadia), told Harlock before his death that he wanted his daughter to be grow up on Earth. When a group of plant-aliens, who all look like women, called the Mazone announce their intentions to invade, Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia are the only people who will stand in the way of the invaders.

This actually leads to one of the show’s faults. Harlock and the courageous crew of the Arcadia are the only ones who will fight the Mazone not because they are the only ones who are able to do so, but because they are the only ones willing to do so. The government of Earth is either too lazy and decadent to fight on their own behalf, or too obsessed with the hunt for Harlock. In the former case we have the Prime Minister, who frequently poo-poos the idea of alien invasion. In the latter case, we have Kiruda, an officer in the Earth Military who pursues Harlock with a passion that would put Inspector Zenigata or Javert to shame.

This is clearly meant to be social commentary and satire, but taken almost forty years out of its original context, and without any real knowledge of Japanese domestic politics in the 1970s – particularly related to their legislature – it’s hard to get a good read on it. The satire reads heavy-handed as hell, but without context, I can’t tell if it’s conservative or progressive. That said, because the satire is so heavy-handed, it does mean that most of the scenes that are involving the government of Earth become rather rough to watch.

For the sake of satire, a lot of people in this show from Earth simply don’t act in a manner like I’d expect a human to act. Tochiro’s daughter, Miyu, is frequently tormented by the matron who runs the orphanage where she lives, and by Kiruda, in order to get at Harlock. When Miyu is tormented just as badly (if not worse) by the Mazone, I buy it, because the Mazone aren’t humans. When, on the other hand, Kiruda and the Matron act like they’re desperately trying to win the Agatha Trunchbull Award For “Excellence” In Education, it comes across like bad writing.

Additionally, the Mazone introduce some rather unpleasant issues to the story. With the exception of one episode, the Mazone exclusively look like beautiful women. This leads to a messy narrative issue, related to how small the show’s female cast is. The series recurring cast has only two heroic female characters – Kei Yuki and Miime. This leads to an unfortunate situation where whenever any mysterious attractive female character appears in an episode, odds are incredibly high that the character is in fact a Mazone spy. It became enough of an issue where, during a 3-episode flashback arc where we saw the origins of the Arcadia, and where Tochiro met Miyu’s mother, Emeraldas, I began to worry that this series was going to have Emeraldas turn out to be a Mazone, with Miyu being half-Human, half-Mazone. This did not happen, but this plot point was enough of an issue that I became very concerned that this might be the case.

I did, ultimately, enjoy watching the series, but this is in spite of large swaths of the series which are absolute slogs, and which unfortunately cannot really be skipped. Because of this I cannot fully recommend the series – I only toughed it out due to an affinity for other parts of Matsumoto’s work.

Should you want to check out the series, it is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu, and the series received a DVD release from Discotek Media, which is available on Amazon, along with a digital release.

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