February 14, 2019

Harlock: Space Pirate

There is a category of movie (and television series) that is watchable and recommendable for pretty much everything but its qualities as a compelling work of cinematic storytelling.

Harlock: Space Pirate is a case in point.


To start with, made for an estimated $30 million, here is convincing evidence that the state of the art in motion capture 3DCG animation can be achieved for a fraction of the cost of the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Frozen (released the same year) had a budget of $150 million.

Frankly, it's mind-boggling how far the technology has come since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The first "photorealistic" computer-animated feature film, it cost a staggering $137 million (staggering for a major motion picture based on original Japanese content) and bankrupted Square Pictures.

Director Shinji Aramaki brought in his first Appleseed film for a more reasonable $10 million.

Aramaki mastered the technical aspects of motion capture 3DCG animation at the helm of the Appleseed films, beginning with Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007). He followed Harlock: Space Pirate with Appleseed Alpha (2014). In that decade, a technology affordable by a few became truly economical.

But all the computers in the world still can't digitally render a decent script out of raw data. Once again we see on display Aramaki's penchant for overly complex plots that require a flow chart to follow.

Not to mention the overused trope that "profound" means "underlit and moody." Matsumoto's original Captain Harlock is an idealistic Robin Hood in an Art Deco world. But according to the backstory of Harlock: Space Pirate, he inflicted so much damage in pursuit of that idealism that he must now atone for it. Gloomily.

The problem this presents is that watching the protagonist mope around for two hours is no fun. So the until the big climax, our titular character has only a minor supporting role and most of the events take place around him.

Long story short, Captain Harlock must destroy the Earth (again) to save it (or something). Meanwhile, the "Gaia Coalition" is determined to stop him from throwing a big wrench into the gears of their fake Earth-worshipping religion (I liked that part). But I quickly stopped caring about the whys and wherefores.

Because all the movie needs is a MacGuffin to keep the story chugging along while we wallow in Leiji Matsumoto's steam punk space opera universe.

Leiji Matsumoto is one of the grand old dons of Japanese manga and animation. In 1974, he co-created the Space Battleship Yamato series, in which the WWII battleship is salvaged and launched into space to save the Earth from malevolent aliens.

Reasoning that it doesn't matter what a ship looks like in space, in 1978, he turned a 17th century Spanish galleon into a starship (Captain Harlock) and did the same with a 19th century steam locomotive (Galaxy Express 999). The latter was inspired by Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad (1927).

Alas, aside from the ship's wheel on the bridge, the Arcadia in Harlock: Space Pirate retains little of the original's retro features.

Except this Arcadia is powered by "dark matter," and dark matter, don't you know, is all black and sooty. This abject silliness does result in the delightfully iconoclastic image of Captain Harlock's hulking starship belching thick clouds of smoke like one of Commodore Matthew Perry's coal-fired "Black Ships."


"Pirates in Outer Space" has since become a genre of its own. Most notably, Firefly and Cowboy Bebop and all the Han Solo segments in the Star Wars films.

The former two series share a similar premise with Harlock: Space Pirate, positing that Earth has become unlivable and a bureaucratic hegemony rules over the scattered remnants of its inhabitants. They also heavily mine the traditional Hollywood western for iconic inspiration.

For Star Wars, George Lucas looked east. The "knights" in Star Wars are armed with "lightsabers" that are really electrified katana. Darth Vader's outfit (especially the helmet) closely resembles the battle gear of the medieval samurai.

Matsumoto's Captain Harlock, on the other hand, flies the Jolly Roger and wields an épée (that doubles as a rifle). Hey, "exotic" is relative.

Harlock: Space Pirate can be streamed for free at Tubi.

Related videos

Harlock: Space Pirate
Captain Harlock (CR) (Tubi)
Space Battleship Yamato (2012 remake)
Galaxy Express 999 (CR) (Tubi)
The Galaxy Railways
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Cowboy Bebop (Fun) (Tubi)

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February 11, 2019

"Angel Falling Softly" and "Twilight"

Doug Gibson recently reposted his critique of Angel Falling Softly and Twilight, originally written for the Ogden Standard Examiner.

In Angel Falling Softly, Rakosi, Milada's late creator, created vampires to satisfy his thirst, greed and loneliness. Twilight's patriarch Carlisle creates vampires to save a dying individual. Angel Falling Softly probes human society, with Milada's curiosity directed at her human, LDS neighbors.

Although Angel Falling Softly is written by a male, it is most interested in females. Other vampires are limited in character, and in the background. In contrast, Twilight's Bella is interested in her vampire friends, and later shapeshifters. Twilight's female writer is mostly interested in male "monsters."

And the humans in Twilight, including Bella's parents, stay in the background for most of the series.

Read the rest here.

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February 07, 2019

Seeing the supernatural

The ghost has been a stock character in spooky stories from around the world since forever. For the sake of this argument, I'm more interested in people who can see ghosts, and not because the ghost—Marley, for example—makes himself visible to a particular person with a particular purpose in mind.

I mean people who can see specters and spirits whether they want to or not. And given the choice, would often rather not.


The Sixth Sense set the contemporary Hollywood standard for seeing dead people. Its popularity spawned series like Ghost Whisperer and Saving Hope, which established the trope of dead people with "issues," who can't "move on" or "into the light" until they resolve whatever mortal problem is plaguing them.

This is "second sight" that requires a degree in psychiatry. (I'd love to see Niles and Frasier Crane tackle the job.) Now, in Kate's paranormal detective series, Donna can see the dead, but the dead have little interest in the living unless the living express an interest in them.

Yet despite being a trope so ubiquitous that it can be dropped into a story with little more than a hand-wave of an explanation, the Hollywood implementation is remarkably constrained in its scope and reach, both in terms of what sort of beings the unseen are and what they can do.

Even series like Buffy and Lucifer stick closely to Judeo-Christian folk theology and established mythological prototypes. This in marked contrast to Japan, where the genre is one of the most popular and expansive in Japanese fantasy, producing many identifiable genres and genres within genres.

My straightforward explanation is that, in Japan, there is so much more for those with "second sight" to see. That is thanks to a two-millennia long collision between Shinto and Buddhism, resulting in the theological school of shinbutsu shugo (神仏習合), the syncretism of Buddhist and Shinto belief.

This syncretism spawned several competing schools of thought. To grossly simplify, honji suijaku (本地垂迹) argues that the Shinto kami are manifestations of Buddhist deities. The contrary "inverted" honji suijaku (反本地垂迹) holds that the primal natural forces of Shinto gave rise to Buddhism and Confucianism.

And then there is a kind of compromise that recognizes the autonomy of the Shinto kami and logically asserts that they are thus in need of Buddhist salvation too.

The latter doctrine is favored in the Spirit World Warrior genre, according to which corrupt souls and delinquent kami require a swift kick in the keister to move them on down the road to reincarnation. Forget about talk therapy. Take off the gloves and blast them into another dimension. For their own good, of course.

To be sure, there are those like Inari in Inari Kon Kon and Yurie in Kamichu who take a kinder, gentler approach. But these exegeses aside, the wide-ranging taxonomy of the kami is what gives the trope so much creative depth. As manifestations of the "interconnecting energy of the universe," the kami

can be elements of the landscape, forces of nature, as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express; they can also be the spirits of venerated dead persons. Kami are not separate from nature, but are of nature, possessing positive and negative, and good and evil characteristics.

In platonistic terms, those with second sight can see what is casting the images on the cave wall. Every metaphysical thing has a physical manifestation, as in Princess Mononoke, in which corruption and pollution reveal themselves as slimy creatures and mad boars and infectious diseases.


One rule I would stipulate is that the magical world and the "normal" world must overlap. Narnia and Harry Potter mostly belong to the isekai ("different world") genre, as do anime like Kakuriyo. Even though Aoi has second sight in this world, the story takes place almost entirely in the "Hidden Realm."

By contrast, Lewis's That Hideous Strength takes place in this world. The Ancient Magus Bride is also set in the contemporary English countryside, where the old magic still thrives and Chise can see the sprites and spirits all around her.

Related posts

Pop culture Shinto
Pop culture Buddhism
Ghostbusting in Japan
The Passion of the Magical Girl

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