“Unleash the dark matter!” “Activate the Jovian accelerator!” “Prepare to enter the IN-skip!” The dialogue in Japanese animated epic “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” is an absolute riot of geeky imperatives, very fitting for a film that’s all about urgency, pseudo-science and speed. Helmed by Shinji Aramaki (“Appleseed”), this is a glorious marshaling of state-of-the-art technical expertise that boasts topnotch stereoscopy, but the portentous script is too nerdy to cross over to the mainstream. Fans of the original 1970s manga-turned-cartoon “Harlock” and younger anime buffs, however, will wolf this down at home and in a number of key offshore markets.
While the pic revives the situation and main characters from the manga by Leiji Matsumoto, which inspired Toei Animation’s TV series (known as “Albator” in Francophone territories, where it was a huge cult hit), the emphasis of this update is much more on post-millennial gloom and environmental anxieties, rather than the original’s mix of sci-fi swashbuckling and anti-Fascist subtext. Taking a leaf out of the “Star Trek” franchise’s playbook (the two shows are not dissimilar in setup), helmer Aramaki and screenwriters Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi have cannily rebooted the basic concept to suit the 2013 zeitgeist. Still, the film doesn’t seem likely to break out beyond the franchise’s core audience of fanboys drawn to tech talk, attenuated-yet-busty femme characters and videogame aesthetics, the latter referenced directly at several points by shoot-’em-up-style p.o.v. shots that herald the inevitable tie-in games.
Having it both ways for reasons made clear toward the end, the opening crawl situates the action either “far, far in the future or perhaps in the distant past,” some time after humans from a resource-exhausted Earth have scattered 500 billion members of their species across the universe in search of new homelands. The whole colonization project didn’t work out so well, and when humans tried to return to Earth, a huge conflict called the Homecoming War broke out some hundred years before the plot proper starts. In the end, no one was allowed back and Earth became a kind of planetary wildlife preserve, worshipped as a symbol by its scattered, doomed descendants throughout the galaxy, while a repressive state called the Gaia Coalition governs all.
And that’s just the backstory. The main premise is that Capt. Harlock (voiced in the Japanese version by Shun Oguri), the eponymous immortal space pirate of the title, is in perpetual rebellion against the Coalition, and flies about the universe in his super-cool-looking if suspiciously phallic intergalactic man-of-war, the Arcadia, both ship and man running on “dark matter.” (If someone connected to the production had bothered to read up on contempo cosmological theory, they might have learned that “dark energy,” the most abundant but enigmatic stuff in the universe, would have made a much better techno-MacGuffin.)
The plot’s main engine of conflict is that high-ranking Coalition leader Ezra (Toshiyuki Morikawa), who looks like a futuristic wheelchair-bound Sgt. Pepper, has sent his kid brother Logan (Haruma Miura) to infiltrate and spy on Harlock and his crew. Naturally, the kid, who looks uncannily similar to Harlock or at least goes to the same barber, starts to sympathize with pirates, especially when he learns of bitter secrets kept by the Coalition, like plans to reform special-needs funding in the education system … no, wait, that’s the coalition government in the U.K. My mistake.
Either way, the dark matter ends up getting unleashed, the Jovian accelerator is activated, and then all hell breaks loose when they enter IN-Skip, all good fun as the very fate of the universe hangs in the balance. The important thing is that it should all look awesome, and with the huge amount of coin clearly spent on rendering, motion capture and incredibly detailed background work, it duly does.
The odd thing is that, especially for Western audiences used to more expressiveness in animated character design, the faces here seem to have all been injected with cartoon Botox, given how static they are in relation to the rest of teeming visual world Aramaki and Co. have created. One can only presume this is a cultural or aesthetic decision, so that everyone should appear congruent with the limited-movement look of the original series. Indeed, a lot of Japanese animation, especially more laddish fare like this, shows the same disconnect between statue-like characters and hyper-detailed surroundings.
The pace feels really draggy by the time pic crawls to its apocalyptic end, but it’s hard to see how anything could have been cut without making the story even more incomprehensible.