Captain Harlock is one of the legendary classic anime, created by Leiji Matsumoto. Airing in the year 1978, it’s an anime that shows its age in terms of composition, tone, and animation. Even so, the fundamentals of the show are stronger than you’d find in a great many modern anime. Essentially, it’s a heroic epic that showcases the strength of the human spirit, as exemplified by Captain Harlock. In spite of its age, the anime still stands at the top of the genre. They don’t make heroes like they used to.
The anime falls into the space opera genre, which encompasses grand sweeping galactic struggles as well as commentary about humanity in general. Of course, it’s an old anime so many may find the animation or pacing difficult to follow. Overall, Captain Harlock is about a heroic individual, which is a hard to find subject in modern anime. Contrary to the modern “every-man” heroes, tragic heroes, and over-powered muscle-heads, classic heroes are more about people to look up to. It’s about a character that’s human, but moreso because of his actions, honor, or otherwise noble demeanor. Sure, there’s action and tragedy and a startlingly high body-count, but those serve as a means of highlighting the main character’s good points. If you can manage to survive the generally inconsistent, dated animation, and manage to suspend disbelief, you’ll find Captain Harlock a story about an individual who you probably wouldn’t mind following to the ends of the universe.
This is the kind of anime where a 7 year old (sort of) side character ends up having more character depth than many modern anime heroes. You eventually learn about the backstories of many of the crew members, including a cat, that end up being a mixture of stories about overcoming tragedy through strength of spirit. What makes the characters particularly interesting is that, in addition to having their own stories and motives, they serve to highlight the strengths of Captain Harlock. They have a really strong rapport that makes the crew all feel like a family. On the opposite side, the Mazone (the alien race Harlock is fighting against) are also developed into fairly complex characters in their own right.
World: Very Good
Perhaps the most interesting part of the world is the “factions” – Earth proper, Harlock, and the Mazone. Each have a very different set of ideals and morals. Even so, none of the groups are monolithic, which is such a rarity in most fictional mediums. In other words, there are differences of opinion and values even within each group. That aside, lots of things about the workings of the world aren’t really explained. For example, you’re never really sure what the difference is between a space mile and a normal mile, or why certain things behave the way they do. They just do. But it’s a testament to the story that it doesn’t particularly matter why the Arcadia is an invincible battleship, for example, it’s enough that it is. Essentially, the world serves its role to enhance the story without really bogging it down in a flurry of basically nonessential fluff. The world does require some suspension of disbelief, so if you’re the type that likes to have some explanation of the inner workings of technology in anime, then you may find this anime a little difficult.
Plot: Very Good
We have a generally slow-burning overall plot that takes place over the course of the entire series. In spite of this, it’s fairly episodic in nature and doesn’t generally ride in “plot arcs.” Fortunately, this means that when the anime gets a little distracted, it’s limited to a single episode or a small part of an episode. That’s not to say that the distractions are useless, since they often show the mettle of a characters or end up building or maintaining relationships. What this means is that the plot points are further apart than you’d find in more modern anime. It’s more about broader course corrections in the overall theme than managing a tight approach to a resolution. In that sense, maybe it’s more like navigating though the vastness of space.
Storytelling: Very Good
Some stronger points are able to mitigate some weaker ones here. The storytelling is really sharp and powerful on its peaks – highlighting courage, heroism, and tragedy. It’s somewhat weaker in connecting our plot points in a tight, stair-steppy way. There’s quite a bit of gaps in the explanations of things or the why of things. I imagine that would be frustrating to some viewers. Of course, the storytelling style is varied as well. Sometimes, it’s small, but not subtle, sometimes it has a broad focus, but short duration. Overall, you get the sense that it’s a grand story, an epic even. It’s not exactly a warm story, but there’s a lot of warmth to it. Similarly, it’s not depressing in its tragedy, because the focus isn’t on the tragedy, but perseverance. In general, the storytelling is about the feel and mood of the anime, and in that regard it succeeds. What’s really interesting is that, since the storytelling is perhaps more focused on the mood, some of the failings end up falling by the wayside.
Pace: Very Good
The pace is clearly something out of another era. The overall pace probably will feel slow. On a per-episode level, however, it will probably feel too fast. It’s a little at odds with itself, but fine overall once you get used to it.
One final note: This review of the classic Harlock contrasts with the most modern iteration, found in the movie Space Pirate Captain Harlock. I forget where I heard it, but the difference between the two is that the original is an unconquerable space captain, while the modern one is a brooding space pirate.