It should be no surprise that I’m watching Space Pirate Captain Harlock: it’s about a chap who captains pirates, in space! The presence of pirates – of fictional pirates, not the depressingly prosaic Somali kind, or petty internet pirates like me and (if you use fansubs) you – is almost a guarantee of excitement, and so a story about pirates in space could only really be improved by adding a Gundam. Harlock (recently reviewed by psgels) almost manages to make even that deficiency up by being full of incident and infused with some kind of distilled Spirit of Adventure.
(Since we’re on the subject, I’ve heard rumours that this anime might appear legally on that streaming site – what was its name? ‘Brittlebun’, or something. Since it has had a longstanding presence across the Atlantic (probably despite, rather than because, of Toei’s own efforts), it’s somehow fitting that Harlock might still be at the cutting – or bleeding – edge of anime distribution, whatever one thinks of Brittlebun. Not that it’s available to viewers over here, of course, but it’s still really fitting – and that’s some comfort, isn’t it?)
I’ve only watched roughly the first fifth of the series so far, but I felt the need to try to crystalise a few of my thoughts – stimulated by one or two posts from other bloggers – by writing them down.
So. Earth has become a single, united state, but it’s a hedonistic dystopia. The citizens are kept passive by subliminal messages in their television, while Earth’s Parliament takes breaks to watch horse races and the Prime Minister himself is more concerned with his golf handicap than with serving his country. The world’s response to the threat of an alien invasion is predictably supine.
Harlock sums all this up in the image of the collapsed Statue of Liberty at the beginning of the third episode. I find this particular dystopia unusually depressing, probably because it’s all too easy to draw the connections between Harlock‘s television-controlled world of apathy and the real world. More than a third of the British electorate don’t care enough about their government to vote. ‘Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?’ But then I am not instinctively a fan of democracy, so perhaps my views should be discounted.
Harlock and his crew aren’t apathetic, which may be why they’re outcasts (a lot of the characters’ pasts have not yet been revealed, beyond the odd hint here and there), and they are the only ones to step forward when Earth is threatened. The lyrics of the opening song neatly encapsulate Harlock’s heroism: he’ll defend Earth with his life even if its government outlaws him, even if its citizens don’t seem worth defending, and even if the planet itself is doomed. Maybe Earth has the government it deserves, but it’s certainly completely unworthy of its defenders.
lbrevis (otherwise Alex of East Anyhow) remarked that this show is full of ‘unabashed masculinity’ and very low on irony. Put those facts together, and you have quite an uncompromising story: if you’re a man you’ll fight under Harlock’s flag of freedom, and if you don’t feel even a twinge of a desire to fight under Harlock’s flag of freedom then it may not be the show for you.
Harlock’s power has not, as yet, been questioned or undermined in any way, but besides run-of-the-mill badassery he’s also a surrogate father for two different orphans, Tadashi Daiba (a fourteen-year-old) and Mayu (the seven-year-old daughter of Harlock’s deceased friend). Mayu’s the lever which introduces us to Harlock in the first episode, in which Harlock visits her to deliver a birthday present (a hand-carved ocarina) despite the efforts of Earth’s military.
Some time ago, while performing some myth-criticism on Gurren Lagann, Cuchlann pointed out that ‘[a]n orphan, by being the child of no one, becomes the child of everyone’ – ‘the town, state, world’. I think that might be a useful idea. Mayu is being brought up in an institution of some kind which is probably, given its rural surroundings, somewhere out of the way. The state doesn’t seem to pay her much attention, except as bait with which to trap Harlock, but since the state itself is so diseased she might be quite lucky to be neglected: while the countryside she lives in isn’t entirely safe (see below) it looks healthier than the show’s cities.
Thinking that child-of-everyone idea over, I think that, besides seeing an orphan’s community as a whole as a parent, I instinctively assess particular adults surrounding the orphan on their performance as replacement parents. The two women in charge of Mayu definitely feel like evil stepmothers. In fact, one of them turns out to be someone else in disguise, which I recall being an unpleasant fear that I would occasionally entertain about my own parents when I was a child. (I had only just outgrown it when I discovered that Dick had written a short story, ‘The Father-Thing‘, on the subject.)
I say ‘evil-stepmother’ advisedly, as Mayu’s story so far feels a bit like a fairytale. In the second episode, for example, she has to draw water from a local stream to wash a chapel floor as a punishment for refusing to betray Harlock, and the matron sends people to the chapel regularly so that the floor never becomes clean. Mayu consequently has to keep travelling to the stream at night as well, and on one of these nocturnal trips she’s attacked by a wolf. (Of course, Harlock arrives to save the day in a suitably dramatic fashion.)
In Mayu’s case Harlock is a father-figure who is generally busy with Pirate Stuff, but for Daiba he’s a near-constant presence. Daiba (whose hairstyle is not, it must be said, shown to its best advantage in the above image) spends a lot of his time Doing It Wrong, at least at this point in the story, and, judging from the attention Harlock pays to his progress, he’s almost apprenticed to Harlock. I wasn’t sure that Harlock was definitely playing a paternal role for Daiba until this scene in the ninth episode: the two of them are surrounded by aggressive aliens and Daiba backs up against Harlock, who hums a tune which (I think) Daiba briefly played on an inherited instrument earlier in the episode.
Harlock is Daiba’s surrogate father, but not exactly the kind that Nomad Otto describes: rather than being a conveniently expendable surrogate father who doesn’t permanently threaten the hero’s position, he pretty much is the hero, at least so far. But then there’s no rule that says we can’t have an alien invasion action saga whose hero isn’t an adolescent becoming an adult. Harlock gives us that development partly from the mentor’s point of view, which does feel rather odd.
It feels more than odd, though: it feels like Seirei no Moribito, which is definitely a good mark for Harlock in my book. I admired SnM‘s Balsa, in a way that I rarely admire characters in anime or manga, and if this show keeps on its current course I suspect I’ll wind up feeling the same admiration for Harlock. This reaction might not help me to think about the story, but hopefully it’ll help me enjoy it.
(Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that I don’t see Harlock as a father to most of his crew, like Yamato‘s Okita, for the (probably far too) simple reasons that he doesn’t look old enough, and that his crew, excepting Daiba, are a pretty capable bunch, in their own slightly anarchic way. This is what makes his relationships with Mayu and Daiba stand out in the first place.)