From director Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed 3D CG movies) this is a high budget take on the animated series from the 1980s about a mysterious rebel pirate .
What’s Old Is New Again
Anyone who’s seen the Daft Punk music video for Harder, Better, Stronger is familiar with anime creator Leiji Matsumoto’s work. Still most in the west are probably unacquainted with Space Battleship Yamato (1974), Galaxy Express 999, and Captain Harlock. His love of steampunk-y worlds, strong yet delicate heroines, and brooding anti-heroes has categorized a work that spans several decades; his name is synonymous with the space opera genre.
Shinji Aramaki pioneered straight to video CG features with a series of animated films set in the Appleseed universe and more recently he remade the Starship Troopers in another CG film, based more on the Heinlein books than the Verhoeven movie. The impressive visual work on the later piece must have left a mark on someone as he eventually landed the job of remaking this much beloved and long running animated series.
Unfortunately, whoever greenlit his involvement forgot that while Aramaki excels at putting beautiful visuals on screen, he also lacks the ability to build a solid narrative around it. The consequence is that Captain Harlock is a frustrating exercise in incoherency. Its chief sin, a problem shared by many of Aramaki’s films, is trying to tell too many stories and not succeeding at telling any of them; stories/plots that would otherwise make a singular film all by themselves, are stewed together here with no real payoff for any of them.
A for example; the main story (it could be said) is about a struggle for ownership of the Earth, a struggle between the lower class and the Elites — except not really. It’s never explicit in the film, just a supposition you make based on the pre-movie title scroll and some random dialog from one of the sequences involving the elites. You never really see any overt yearning from the masses for a return to earth and the revelation of why humanity can’t return to the earth kind of further deflates the situation. The big revelation then (seemingly) becomes a Harlock redemption story, but the countless lives lost in his single minded pursuit just doesn’t seem worth it. It does not endear him to the audience because he suddenly seems like a thug and mass murderer. Killing people for something that he’s ultimately culpable for.
One of the things that drew me to the original series and really all of Leiji’s work was the simple plot. Harlock a lone rebel fighting a civil war that everyone else on his side had long forgotten. His courage and perseverance bringing hope to the otherwise helpless and downtrodden masses. This film adds so much complexity to the story that the original narrative is lost and even altered for no discernible reason.
It’s all pretty frustrating, as it all just becomes words and scenarios thrown together as an excuse to show off some wonderful images and effects…but boy those explosions.
Speaking of Dark Matter
The story might be for crap, but the visuals just sing. Aramaki can never be accused of skimping on the cool. A lot of care is taken to make this film’s every frame magnificent and Matsumoto’s style has never been more lovingly realized here.
Harlocks virtually unstoppable skull ship is appropriately badass and menacing, its plumes of dark matter smoke billowing and swirling around it like a steam train of doom. The design of the ship is perfectly realized both inside and out and we probably get to see more of the ship than we’ve had the opportunity from the anime series. All character design work, both human and non-human alike, are well executed. Harlock and his alien companion are excellently realized though the captain’s sidekick (and ship mechanic) isn’t quite like I remember him, but he’s still as loveable as I recall. There are several new characters introduced, in particular a blond female character who’s joined his team and helps lead the rag tag infantry along with several characters representing the Elite society.
During the course of the film we travel to several planets, most are fairly barren, but humanity has settled in most of them so we get a chance to see beautifully impressive cities and small outback towns. All lovingly rendered. Shinji Aramaki is running on all cylinders here and truly in his element. A pity he wasn’t paired with better storytellers for the script.
Maybe Next Time
I’ve been looking forward to this feature for quite some time and it pains me that it doesn’t live up to it’s potential. I’d recently watched another Matsumoto redo in the traditionally animated Space Battleship Yamato 2199 and I thought that was really well realized, I’d hoped this would be at least close to that.
Harlock succeeds on the visual end, but falls far short of the goal post where it really matters; the story. Fans who could care less about narrative will probably find something to love in this. As for me, I hope next time’s the charm.