In the vaults of much-loved Japanese science-fiction in animated form, Captain Harlock is a perennial favourite that hasn't been revisited for some time now - until last year, when Toei Animation took the arguably brave move of choosing to reimagine Leiji Matsumoto's titular space pirate in 3D CG animated form. It's a brave move which seems to have paid off in global terms too, with Netflix picking up the exclusive rights to stream the resulting movie on its service, to be followed by a UK home video release from Manga Entertainment. Given these credentials, I figured that it was time to finally introduce myself to Captain Harlock's world to see how this effort fares through the eyes of someone new to the franchise.
In the far-flung future, the human race is in decline - a fact which sent its remaining scattered members rushing home to live out their final days on Earth. However, this only resulted in a bloody and damaging war - dubbed the Homecoming War - over the rights to reside on the planet, and ultimately victorious in staking their claim was the Gaia Coalition, who ended the conflict by designated the Earth as a holy land fit only to home a very select few.
Thus, the despairing remains of humanity is now shuffling in desolation around the cosmos, with one unusual, dark beacon serving as its sole exception. That oddity is the Arcadia, a terrifying ship that is the stuff of legend, bested only by its captain, a space pirate known only as Harlock. As the sole home for those with any will to live on, there are plenty who would wish to join the Arcadia's crew, but its selection process is, shall we say, macabre. When we witness one young lad named Logan (or Yama, if you listen to the Japanese audio rather than relying on the subtitles) somehow winning the hearts and minds of at least one of the Arcadia's crew to book his place within their midst, we're all set for adventures around the galaxy...
...except Logan is not simply some fresh-faced young rookie, but a man on a mission in his own right - a mission which is directly opposed to that of the Arcadia and Harlock himself, as they seek a means to literally turn back time (by blowing up a big chunk of the current universe, incidentally) and return to a universe where the Earth is suitable for all and humanity are strong enough to reside upon it. Needless to say, the Gaia Coalition want to stop Harlock's plan at all costs, and they're an organisation whom our brooding captain appears to be rather familiar with as the film progresses.
If there's one thing that Harlock: Space Pirate isn't short of, it's plot twists - in fact, I'd wager it turns aspects of its story on its head more often than a soft toy in a tombola on a busy day. At times, this is entertaining as the film pulls back the curtain on its cast and their surroundings to good effect, but the final act of the film is a mass of twists and turns that (in fairness to the movie's plot) always remains coherent but become a little tiresome as the question of "who is the real villain" gets tossed around like a hot potato all the way through to what is a rather lacklustre ending that doesn't match the spectacle of much of what has gone before it.
This is rather a shame, as aside from this Harlock: Space Pirate is a good, no-nonsense popcorn flick - a slice of sci-fi action that blends its sense of adventure and space-bound set pieces with just the right amount of quieter character moments and opportunities to glean glimpses into the pasts of the Arcadia's crew of misfits with nowhere else to turn. Admittedly, the film's CG sometimes struggles to depict the more complex emotions of these characters in visual terms - hugely emotional moments are represented with little more than the kind of furrowing of a brow which you might make when it rains on laundry day. These problematic moments aside, the broader look of the film is excellent, managing to walk the line between representing the well-known look of the franchise's traditionally animated past whilst still stepping away from "the anime look" to create something fresh, modern and capable of standing on its own two feet. Its action scenes may not be the best you've ever seen but they work well by impressing in all the right places, and the overall impression left by the film's visuals is undoubtedly a good one - an opinion likely to be further enhanced once Netflix's mediocre streaming quality is replaced by a full-blown Blu-Ray release.
Surprisingly, Netflix have chosen not to create an English dub for the film at this juncture, which seems like it would be a given considering the movie's willingness to step away from its anime origins in terms of its overall looks. Still, the Japanese voice cast do a perfectly reasonable job in their native language, and the film's subtitles are pretty good, albeit bright yellow. You may find yourself wishing for a full-on multi-channel surround sound track to do the film's action scenes justice in audio terms, but again that will come to those who wait for the Blu-Ray release.
How Harlock: Space Pirate will play to long-standing fans of the franchise is impossible for me to evaluate, but as a starting point for anyone looking to take a peek into Harlock's world this film seems to work pretty well - it was fun to watch in its own right in spite of its flaws (much like many of director Shinji Aramaki's other major CG contributions, one could argue), and it's left me wanting to explore some of its other iterations into the bargain. Grab some popcorn, possibly a beer or two, then disengage most (but not all) of your brain and this is the anime fan's equivalent of a summer blockbuster. That might not be how you want to hear a new iteration of Space Pirate Captain Harlock described, but put any preconceptions to bed and you'll probably have a good time watching it.
You can currently watch Harlock: Space Pirate in streaming form on Netflix UK. The film will be released on home video by Manga Entertainment in February 2015.