I've written before how Leiji Matsumoto is a mythmaker, someone not content to just tell stories but to evoke deeper undercurrents in our individual and collective imaginations. If that sounds pretentious, you're probably not his intended audience, but that mode has become both the saving grace and overriding limitation of Matsumoto's works. Galaxy Express 999, Queen Emeraldas, Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock all use space opera as a medium for something that approaches the level of a mythos of a cosmic future for mankind, and there are many times in his work when such a thing doesn't seem anywhere nearly as foolish as I just made it sound.
The bad news is that when Matsumoto gets in his own way, it threatens to undo the goodwill built up by the best in his work. The one overriding flaw of Captain Harlock: Arcadia Of My Youth, then, is that Matsumoto keeps getting in his own way. What should have been a simple, mythic story has been cluttered with unnecessary complications that don't add anything we really need.
When Harlock first appeared in 1978 in the TV series that bore his name, he had no backstory as such. That seemed well-suited to a brooding character of dark charisma; putting a history on someone like that and you run the risk of making him seem conventionally tragic instead of outright mythical. Arcadia attempts to provide Harlock with a history and a set of motivations, to show how the man we know now perhaps always existed as such, and was simply waiting for the right set of circumstances to fully emerge. It doesn't matter much that the movie is set in a continuity unrelated to the TV series; the character's drives and desires are consistent, and what is meant to matter are not the specific details but the general sweep.
Many of Matsumoto's works revolve around humanity in decline, and both Harlock at large and Arcadia in particular are no different. Here, Earth has been subjugated by the humaniform aliens of the Illumidus Empire, and as per Matsumoto's themes it's strongly implied this was not because humanity was outgunned but because its leaders were too willing to capitulate. Harlock, a captain in the space navy that fought the Illumidus, simmers with resentment, at least as much because of how humanity sold itself out than because the Illumidus are crushing the human race under its heel.
The fires of rebellion still burn, though. Maya, Harlock's old flame, broadcasts a pirate radio message to the human race, urging them to keep hope alive. A few who hear the message are drawn to Harlock, and decide that it's better to risk death for true freedom than to live comfortably as slaves. Among those who are drawn to Harlock's unshakable sense of justice and join his rebellion are faces familiar to anyone who knows the original material — engineer Tochiro Ōyama, creator of the ship "Arcadia" that Harlock will claim as his own); the mysterious and melancholy alien La Mime; and Matsumoto's other legendary space pirate, Queen Emeraldas. All of them, including a cadre of other aliens who have grown to resent the role they played in Earth's destruction (and their own concomitant corruption), are arrayed against the alien forces and their supreme commander, a creature with nerves at least as steely as Harlock's and a sense of honor that is at least as refined.
Mythmaking and mistake-making
All this ought to work, and by and large it does. Arcadia shares with both its parent material and Matsumoto's work generally all of the things about it that I admire — its sense of how human lives are tiny, but human will is infinite and eternal, and how greatness is within the grasp of all of us if we say yes to it. I always enjoy stories about heroes who have their own personal code and stick to it ruthlessly in the face of total despair: Guts of Berserk; Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack; Manji of Blade of the Immortal. I encountered Harlock's embodiment of those principles long before I discovered those other characters, and so it's hard for me not to respond on some instinctive level to Harlock's struggles. Much of the animation in the film is only a notch or two above the level of a lavish TV production, but at times it vaults far higher. I particularly liked the quasi-psychedelic sequence where Harlock passes close to a star as a way to evade his enemies.
Where Arcadia falls down is in a way that doesn't even really need to be there. Matsumoto and his screenwriter Yōichi Onaka have infused this story with a nonsensical wraparound subplot that threatens to torpedo its themes instead of enriching them. The film itself opens with one of Harlock's ancestors, circa World War I, flying over challenging terrain; later, during World War II, he meets one of Ōyama's ancestors, and the bond forged between them is allegedly echoed down through their genetic memories into the present day. Other elements in the film try to echo back to this, as when Harlock flies through a treacherous region of space that is reminiscent of his ancestors' own journey, but it feels forced — an attempt to infuse the story with meaning by fiat, when it already has plenty of other things to drawn on anyway.
It's not that the subplot in question is preposterous, even by Matsumoto's standards; it's that it doesn't plug into anything the movie is actually about. If Arcadia is about anything, it's about how Harlock breaks from the thundering herd, stands up for what he believes in, and compels a few others to break their own ranks and walk with him. The details about Harlock's and Ōyama's intertwined pasts don't feed into that in a coherent way, not even via Matsumoto's penchants for mythmaking or the way the limited scopes of human lives can become receptacles for something far greater. A story more conscientious about its aims and intentions would have ditched this stuff in a rewrite.
The more I've seen of Matsumoto's work adapted to other media — the Galaxy Express 999 and Harlock TV shows, the woeful CGI Harlock film, and so on — the more I've come to feel two things. One is that an episodic format, TV, serves his work better than a single-dose format, feature films, in big part because his original works had a highly episodic flavor to begin with (okay, the Emeraldas manga is short and OVA-ish, but I think my point still stands). The other is how moving Matsumoto's work from the page to the screen, any screen, tends to magnify both its strongest and weakest qualities. It means any miscalculations, any places where the mythmaking shades over into mumbo-jumbo, become all the more glaring. But it's also stirring and moving to see the mythopoesis inherent in a character like Harlock come to life, and I suspect your feelings about this movie are going to revolve largely on whether the good impulses outweigh the bad. For me, the bad was annoying, but the good was timeless. I'll take them both if I must.