Harlock: Space Pirate is yet another triumph of hardware over software, of slick visuals and high-end graphics taking the place of a strong story. Every year or so Japan puts out a project like this: a feature film based on a well-regarded property or with a high-end pedigree or with both, using computer-generated imagery. The results are almost inevitably a clinker, a glitzy, overpriced turkey that's more interested in being good-looking than being good. It happened with Vexille, it happened with TO, it happened with Dragon Age and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and some (although not all) of the Appleseed productions. Now it's happened again with Harlock, which is doubly humiliating given that Leiji Matsumoto's impassioned space-opera epics are some of the last titles you'd want to subject to such a sterilizing approach. But they went and did it all the same.

Some background. Matsumoto is the creator of a slew of far-future stories -- Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato (known to many as Star Blazers), Harlock itself, and a slew of spin-offs that share the same universe and many of the same themes. Harlock involved the title character, a Byronically heroic, one-eyed galactic brigand whose crew of misfits — an ethereal, elfin alien; a willowy human woman; a slew of comic-relief types — sail with him into space aboard the Arcadia to protect Earth against alien invaders when no one else will rise to the occasion. The TV series based on Matsumoto's original manga is dark, Gothic stuff, directed by animation veteran Rintarō (he of Dagger of Kamui and Metropolis, as well as a later OVA featuring Harlock and his gang), and at the very least the movie reproduces some of that darkness well.

What it does not do is tell us a story that seems worth the effort. In this incarnation of the story, Harlock and his crew are fighting against a planetary coalition called the "Gaia Sanction" that have declared Earth off-limits after a long and bloody war to reclaim it as the seat of humanity. A spy from Gaia, Logan (he's called Yama in the Japanese version of the story), is sent aboard the Arcadia to bring Harlock down. The ship's powered by a quasi-magical "dark matter" that allows it — and its captain — to be near-immortal, a Flying Dutchman of space, but Harlock isn't content to simply steer his way between the stars. He wants nothing less than to turn back the clock of time itself and restore Earth to its former glory. "Former", since unbeknownst to all but the Gaia Sanction's council, Earth is a blasted, uninhabitable wreck.

Much of the story is divided between two struggles, neither of which really clicks. The first and most obvious is between Logan and Harlock, as the captain knows full well his new recruit is a spy, but saves him from certain death anyway as a way to win the man's loyalty. He gets it, up to a point, but Logan is still uncertain about whether Harlock's larger plans (which involve some quasi-mystical space mumbo-jumbo) are in fact the answer. The other struggle is between Logan and his brother, crippled due to Logan's own foolishness, and who has channeled his bitterness into ambition within the Gaia Sanction. Much of this stuff is what I've come to call "filler characterization", the sort of thing that exists to show that some due diligence has been done to provide people with motives and backstory. But it all feels perfunctory, not organic, and there's too many attempts to invoke sympathy for characters by explaining their pasts to death instead of by, you know, having them do something that would actually make us sympathize with them.

https://www.ganriki.org/media/2014/harlock-05.jpg https://www.ganriki.org/media/2014/harlock-04.jpg
Logan, the turncoat twice over; Kei, one of Harlock's many fellow-travelers.

The one thing I can't deny about Harlock is that it looks sensational, although we've gotten to the point where (as Roger Ebert once put it) praising a movie for looking good is a little like praising a car because the wheels are round. The visual textures of science fiction are a fine fit for what can be produced with CGI; everything from the space battles to the blasted planetscapes are eye-filling in the extreme. It's, again, the people that fall short. More than a little pain was taken to make sure the characters resemble their manga and anime counterparts — e.g., Harlock's ugly vulture-like bird mascot — but their faces, expressions, and bodily movements still look hincty. (See also: Freedom.) Most every CGI production since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on down has suffered from this problem, and given that said movie was released some thirteen years ago it's disappointing how little progress has been made on that front. The folks at Namco (Tekken: Blood Vengeance) seem to do a slightly better job at pulling off such things, but the bottom line is that it's still far easier to draw a compelling-looking human face than it is to render one.

But the movie's problem with its people runs far more than skin-deep. They're just not very engaging as characters, and I blame that on the convoluted and uncompelling story they're saddled with enacting.  It's not just that there's not one but two (and possibly three) MacGuffins, but the movie doesn't even bother to have an actual ending for most of them. Instead, it puts Logan in the position to take over where Harlock left off -- without actually having him do it -- and ends the movie with all the grace of a door slammed on the viewer's foot. If they were planning on leaving the door open for a sequel, they chose the worst possible way to do it.

One of the disadvantages of computer graphics seems to be how it constrains creativity as much as it enables it. My original feeling was that it makes it too easy to create things that are most directly enabled by CGI, rather than allow a vision that isn't necessarily connected to any existing CGI work to take shape. I've eased off on that viewpoint a bit, because at the end of the day CGI is merely a tool, and conforms more to the vision of its user than anything else. But the biggest problems with Harlock don't stem from the way CGI can be as limiting as can be liberating. They're all a product of how the movie doesn't seem to know what story it wants to tell, or whose story, or to what end. What a shame for a production that wanted to put one of anime's most iconic figures on the screen.

© LEIJI MATSUMOTO / CAPTAIN HARLOCK Film Partnershttps://www.ganriki.org/media/2014/harlock-03.jpg
One of many gorgeous, if unfulfilling, space battles that pepper the film.
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.