Maybe it’s just because my most coherent formative years were part of it and that most of the initial Japanese titles I sampled came from it, but I have a soft spot for 90’s anime. There just seems to be an energy in the titles from the decade that I don’t think quite transitioned into the new millennium. Something transparently optimistic and fun, as a title like Outlaw Star demonstrates.
Running for 26 episodes, Outlaw Star is a manga adaptation with a high concept I also think is tied strongly to 90’s anime: space opera meets wild west cowboys. Humanity has expanded to the stars in search of riches and wonders. Rather than forming some massive Federation or some such, they are instead spread across numerous colonised worlds which they share with a selection of alien races they have encountered. The vast expanse of space makes it a difficult place to govern which in turn has ignited a new era of dangerous pirates and optimistic dreamers. Gene Starwind is a 20 year old ladies man and crack shot who lives on a backwater planet where he runs an odd job business with his friend, the child genius Jim. When the pair take a job to protect a seemingly demure woman, they quickly get swept up into a conspiracy involving an amnesiac girl, an advanced spaceship (which they quickly dub the “Outlaw Star”), and possibly the greatest treasure in the universe.
Something that helps give Outlaw Star an edge is hailing from the ‘seinen’ stable of Japanese stories, aimed at an older audience then the fare often seen from Shonen Jump-style and similar anime. Gene himself highlights this perfectly in being a more world weary hero than the likes of Naruto or Luffy. He still believes in dreams but in a way that feels more subdued with experience of reality. More Han Solo, less Luke Skywalker.
The formation of the unlikely crew for the titular spaceship is another familiar element to Outlaw Star. Gene starts off with Jim (his semi sidekick whose constant lamenting is annoying more often than not) and Melfina, a seeming amnesiac young woman who directly interfaces with the ship through a tube behind the pilots’ seat. A moe R2-D2, to continue the Star Wars comparisons. The ship also has in inbuilt AI in the form of the soft spoken Gilliam, the typical polite yet snarky on board computer. Along the way they pick up the wise beyond her years assassin ‘Twilight’ Suzuka and the rambunctious alien cat-girl Aisha Clan-Clan. Once assembled the crew’s attention is divided between finding work to keep the Outlaw Star operational and finding any clues to the intended purpose for both the ship and Melfina.
This divide means that a lot of the episodes are basically standalone capers that don’t end well for the characters, employing variants of the ‘down-on-luck character goes for opportunity and somehow comes out worse off’ schtick seen in many older anime TV shows. In all honesty, the scripts aren’t quite smart enough, meaning you’ll likely recognise situations (such as Gene having to break INTO a prison or terrorists holding the crew hostage) from other fiction and quickly pick up that an early understated piece of dialogue is actually the lynchpin to the story of the day. However the episodes are still a fun ride, offering entertaining surprises when you least expect them. An episode involving first contact with an undocumented alien species is an amusing example, and a set of episodes involving a space race manages to be as twisty as the race itself.
The other side is the mystery of Melfina and the ‘Galactic Leyline’. A mild MacGuffin, the Leyline is spoken of in confused rumours and ushers in the ultimate antagonists in the form of the Kei Pirates and the MacDougal brothers. The pirates are a rather unique and intimidating set of villains, exploiting a far future version of Chinese religious practices to wield real and lethal magic. Although initially represented by ineffective robot soldiers, we eventually get to see the groups inner circle, which is made up of the most elite assassins in all of space. I’m of two minds on the group’s implementation. Hazanko, their leader, is one of the most intimidating villains I could name in any media. However, the decision to bring them in results in a handful targeting Gene by themselves with the rest being saved for the big finale. This does stop at least some of them from being neutered with an earlier defeat but also makes the cast feel that tiny bit bloated. However, I do love the usage of one of their number in the infamous ’banned’ hot springs episode. Although this episode really doesn’t hold back when it comes to fanservice, the comedy beats are so amusingly intense and the animation so fluid that it’s hard not to appreciate the episode on that factor alone.
The MacDougals are a pair of hired guns who are a recurring threat to the crew. Harry, the younger brother, is the most active given an obsession he develops with Melfina. The moments where he corners her are uncomfortable as he behaves like a schizophrenic abusive lover. Nothing quite as intense as the realistic violence in some modern shows, but unpleasant and then awkward with where the show goes with the character by the end. Older brother Ron is more professional and implied to be involved with a tragedy in Gene’s past, but we sadly don’t get any final resolution as part of a sequel hook. The pair are certainly memorable and (mostly) charismatic villains, but they feel a bit redundant by the end. There is at least a morbidly amusing motif for Harry that gets expanded upon after each appearance.
One concept of the show I find endearing is the idea of Grappler Ships, crossing spaceships with mecha by adding articulated robot arms. It seems silly at first, but once you start seeing ships engaging one another with rifles and swords you actually buy into it. If anyone else tried to do it it would fail hard, but Japan knows how to make the wackiest of ideas incredibly cool.
Although the show generally looks as good as you can expect from a mid-90s TV anime, this release seems to use the restored video footage from a recent Japanese release, and the results are pretty good. The show looks crisp and vibrant, rather than the jagged, washed out look that can often befall older anime titles on DVD. I should note that the source footage hails from well before widescreen became a home standard, and so all aspects of the disc are formatted as such.
The standard audio options of the original Japanese and English dub are available. I have to say the dub itself by this point is really showing its age and poor work. I’m not saying it’s a bad dub as such (there are far worse efforts out there) but it’s about as clunky as most early ‘anime boom’ dubs were, and really falters when you compare it to the subtitle track. Often times the dub either gets stuff wrong or just makes stuff up. A good example is an episode which sees the cast getting involved with an intergalactic strongman tournament; the subtitles inform us that by tenth occasion, no one had won the tournament twice in a row. The dub has this as no one winning ten times in a row. It seems whoever was producing the dub script was going on very sketchy translations, resulting in dialogue that doesn’t suck you in as much as it could. This is a shame because the actual voice actors all do a solid job, and it actually helps to hear some who have since moved out of anime circles, as they bring a nice variety to an industry which has since been dominated by the same circle of voice talent.
Extras are a range of trailers stored on the final of the four discs. The most interesting of these is what seems to be a pre-production animation demo with slightly different designs. Similar production works appear in an art gallery extra. Rather than allowing you to freely move through images, it’s a timed video styled as being a computer database from the show. There’s also clean versions of both Openings and Endings and Japanese TV trailers for the show’s premiere, initial DVD release and remastered DVD release.
Outlaw Star is a lot of fun and definitely worth a watch. However, I’m not sure if it’s as strong as it could have been and feel that Cowboy Bebop (which itself has been released in by Anime Limited in two Blu-ray sets and a DVD collection) does the whole ‘episodic adventures of a rag tag space crew of misfits’ idea better. That can cut both ways though as Outlaw Star is the better option if, among other things, you don’t have the heart to watch Bebop’s more gut punch narrative. In that respect Outlaw Star wins for functioning as escapism. It’s enjoyable and has an air I don’t really think we see anymore. It’s just not hitting its zenith, sadly.
Outlaw Star is available to buy on DVD from Amazon UK.