Taking advantage of the huge popularity of Matsumoto’s animated rendition of Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) the television series
Space Pirate Captain Harlock took Matsumoto’s original manga and turned it into a 42-episode animated series.
Audiences were by now used to Matsumoto’s drawing style, which was faithfully transferred to the screen, and whether they did it consciously or not, the viewing public perhaps did place this new Matsumoto offering in the same universe and time as
Yamato. After all, the paraphernalia of those universes were very similar — and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a vast universe where all those characters co-existed.
Universal Predestiny if you're feeling brave,
or Guest Appearances if you feel like confusing yourself further.)
Space Pirate Captain Harlock throws us into the middle of Harlock’s life, a narrative device that contributed much to Harlock’s mysteriousness. Events of his past are barely glimpsed and the audience
ergo feels obliged to fill in the rest. The nebulosity of Harlock’s backstory has resulted in an amazing amount of conjecture that can at times appear alternately amusing or distasteful, and readers must beware of any theories on this matter that did not come from the pen of Matsumoto
Leiji himself. And even when it does come from Matsumoto’s pen, you still need to beware…Ultimately, nothing is fixed in the world of Matsumoto, and I do wonder if he, at times, derives some sort of perverse pleasure at the bewilderment he has engendered.
What we do know about Captain Harlock when Space Pirate Captain Harlock opens is this: he is a so-called ‘space pirate’; he has lost an eye and gained a large facial scar at some point in his past; he drinks too much red wine and is melancholy; he is captain (and owner) of an enormous and well-equipped space vessel called the
Arcadia that is crewed with a motley collection of ‘pirates’ (41, to be precise, including three women — the cat and bird are additional); he has collected an alien female companion along the way (wash your minds out, Harlock doesn’t do the sex-thing in this series); he has left Earth due its apathy and ennui; he is
the sole guardian of a small girl, Mayu, who is the daughter of his closest, and now deceased, friend.
It is a lot to absorb in a first episode, but it is certainly intriguing enough to draw an audience in. Some of these situations are explained as the series progresses, and some will never be explained. The loss of Harlock’s right eye and
his facial scar are never explained; neither is how he became a pirate, though the why of it is. Harlock in this incarnation is a corporate raider, keeping the Earth government on its toes by only targeting their vessels and the vessels of businesses that
he feels are responsible for the decline of human society. Where the Arcadia came from is eventually explained, as is Mayu.
And when some explanations are forthcoming, other things then become explainable, though all the audience is really left with is speculation. And that’s what makes Harlock so damn charismatic
— the mystery. The audience can never know him, no matter how close they think they have become to knowing him. Even within
his own universe he remains a mystery — his crew can never know him, though long experience has taught them to simply accept him.
female alien companion, is probably closest to knowing him, and because of this they share a unique and appreciated intimacy. It’s not an intimacy that leads to
a physical union, but it does give Miimé unlimited access to Harlock’s bedroom. Make of that what you will, but in
Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Harlock keeps his pants on. And there you have another point of speculation.
Story-wise there are a number of arcs that develop in the series, which is to be expected in 42 30-minute episodes.
Harlock has left the Earth, but whether he wants to or not he is forced to loiter about it in order to fulfill the wishes of his dead friend
Tochirō, and maintain a watch over Tochirō’s daughter Mayu. If you are wondering why Harlock simply doesn’t take Mayu aboard the
Arcadia, well, apart from a pirate ship filled with sake-swilling men being no place to bring up a small girl,
and Tochirō's dying wish that Mayu grow up on Earth, Harlock is acutely aware that he can’t force Mayu into a life of piracy, which is what would result were she to be brought up in those circumstances. Harlock is a great believer in free choice and acting from the heart, and he knows Mayu must have every opportunity in life to follow her own path.
So Harlock hangs around the Earth being intermittently chased by Earth forces, as well as becoming the target of the ruthlessly singleminded Commander
Kirita, until Kirita’s subordinates get wise and start sabotaging him in his efforts to apprehend Harlock out of fear and unwillingness to engage Harlock any more often than is necessary.
In the meantime, it is discovered that the Earth has been under an insidious attack from the Mazone, an intelligent plant-based life form that has been existing secretly on Earth for
millennia and who now have decided that the time is ripe for a takeover. At the
same time, a certain Dr Daiba has almost figured out the Mazone plot and is subsequently murdered by the Mazone. Daiba’s son, Tadashi, finds his father’s body and vows revenge on his killers, and through a series of events
he is invited aboard the Arcadia to join Harlock in averting the Mazone threat.
Of course the plot of Space Pirate Captain Harlock is not as simple as it has been painted. Events are not so neat, and circumstances are never what they appear.
Space Pirate Captain Harlock is full of questions and murky motivations —
Harlock himself questions constantly what he is doing. While he seems propelled by circumstance to battle the Mazone, he understands their all-too-human plight and
sympathises with them, wondering how he
managed to become involved in this war. Tadashi comes aboard the Arcadia with a singleminded purpose of hate and retribution, but is shown through Harlock, and
even the Mazone, that retribution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
That the Arcadia is a vessel for running away from life is clear in Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Harlock himself admits to being aimless, having nowhere particular to go and just looking for a place to die. As backstories of the crew are revealed, we learn that they are all
nursing their own wounds, and the Arcadia provides a dark and safe environment to do that in. Conversely, it also gives the crew a
new purpose, which is to serve their captain. And serve him loyally they do, since he has become their benevolent
protector by taking them into his fold at their lowest emotional point.
The end of Space Pirate sees Harlock throw his crew off the Arcadia, much to everybody’s surprise. I’m sure the audience (and the crew) imagined that they would all sail off into the sunset and happier times. But Harlock is not meant to be happy, his life isn’t meant to be easy.
And we forget that he is also running away, serving some self-imposed punishment for we know not what indiscretion. Which brings us back to
the mystery that is Harlock...