In the far future humanity extended to the stars and colonised alien worlds. War inevitably broke out between the overseers and the colonists, the latter bolstering their forces by issuing Letters of Marque to pirate ships and using their actions as legal pirates to weaken their enemy.
100 years later pirates have become a little known legend, but continue to prowl the space lanes. Two such pirates contact high school student Marika Kato with a request. Her estranged and recently deceased father was a pirate captain, and the law states his license may only be passed onto his direct heir. As his only child, Marika must decide if she’s willing to take his seat and allow the ship Bentenmaru to continue its piracy.
With this prelude, the premise is set for Marika stepping up to take the captaincy of a legalised pirate ship as essentially a part time job. While the idea of legal pirates may sound daft to anyone familiar with the surrounding pop culture (a fact that show points out in its very first episode), there is some historical basis for it. However, this actually limits the scope of the premise somewhat. Being legal as opposed to criminals means the Bentenmaru and its crew pick up the jobs you’d expect of Planet Express rather than the Black Pearl. Most of their work involves commissioned mock attacks on space cruise liners, pretending to plunder the ship for the amusement of the guests. In this way the show kind of defangs what could be a better premise. The idea of Marika questioning if she wants to take up the role of a pirate captain isn’t quite as dramatic when “pirate” seems more like a title slapped on to an odd jobs ship.
However the light-heartedness works quite well, offering a show that might not be getting best use of a premise but is certainly fun and enjoyable with what it is making of it. With so many anime series now seemingly set on pretentiously answering society’s ills, Space Pirates settles on just being good entertainment. It perfectly captures the positive aspirational energy that is a hallmark of all futuristic space epics.
Marika herself is quite easy to warm to. Energetic and friendly, she’s the kind of person who just clicks with others and this serves her well as she tries to take on the task of captain maturely. Admittedly her competency seems a little too poorly developed; rather than logically developed displays of cunning, it feels like Marika wins mostly because the script requires her to win. Still, in an industry that thinks girls with brains of cotton wool are superior, I’ll happily welcome one that can think outside the box and pull off clever game plans.
Her existing familiarity with space travel and piloting is explained by her being a member of her school’s space yacht club. This is unfortunately where the single most disappointing element of the show emerges. The yacht club is made up of a grab bag of otaku pleasing school girls: vapid characters who spout tired lines like “Wow, it looks fun!” and “Let’s do our best!” These “characters” take centre stage a few times which does little but distract from the more interesting elements of the show. The sole exception is a brief arc giving prominence to one of the freshmen members who proves to be a piloting prodigy. It does help that this arc plays alongside other developing plot threads. A slightly earlier arc which delves into industrial espionage does try to develop two central members of the club and offers some welcome surprises in doing so but is let down again by what should be a tense and challenging situation proving far too easy for the assembled characters to resolve.
The waste of focus on the yacht club is mostly annoying because the characters on the pirate side are far more unique. Some characters beg for screen time, such as Misa, the ship’s doctor and confidant/guiding hand to Marika, and Schnitzer, a hulking gentle-giant cyborg who serves as weapons expert. The whole central crew of the Bentenmaru is a perfectly balanced blend of eccentricities which makes it all the more disappointing that show doesn’t really delve deeper into them. There are flashes of character and the clear feeling they must have shared several adventures to trust their captain’s daughter so much, but the potential generally goes unexplored. At the very least their varied personalities do offer amusement when they have to play off one another on the bridge, especially navigator Luka who performs her task using fortune telling and tarot cards to bewilderment of the others.
A related character is “Blaster” Ririka, former pirate and Marika’s single mother. A legend who gave up piracy to raise her daughter, the interactions between her and Marika are some of the most natural parts of the script, communicating the insular bond a parent and child can display when discussing the troubles of life. She does receive her own subplot as her daughter builds up steam but the pay off felt obvious and actually lowered my opinion of the character after having enjoyed her prior.
The other prominent pirate character is Chiaki, a black haired girl the same age as Marika who enters her life once the news of her captaincy emerges. Cast from the overplayed tsundere mold, Chiaki is actually a genuinely amusing play on that type of character which may be helped by Caitlyn French’s voice work. Although occasionally sounding bored rather than passive, French offers a portrayal that works well with the existing animation to offer a character who is strong yet vulnerable in just the right mix. It’s certainly welcome over the self centered violent rhymes-with-witch that most tsundere types are.
There isn’t really a plot to the show, more a series of successive arcs which follow the subtle trend of Marika learning to be a captain and rising in personal and public prominence. The initial run of episodes probably makes the best use of the club to introduce the foundations of space naval combat, which is dominated by electronic warfare. The first true arc sees the Bentenmaru being hired by a princess to locate a lost colony ship which keeps warping across space. It’s a familiar premise for space opera and allows some low key world building with Princess Gruier becoming a regular, for better or worse. The arc definitely leaves her a role to play but she just becomes a sidekick for Marika afterwards.
Another sees the crew becoming infected in Marika’s absence, leading her to assemble a substitute crew in the form of the yacht club. This is the aforementioned plot which tries to dabble in industrial espionage and conspiracy but makes the obstacles far too easy to overcome.
The final arc is probably the most story driven, involving the appearance of a mysterious battleship that is systematically destroying pirates across space. Things go a bit At World’s End, with the pirates having to either form a united front or be destroyed. The arc is the darkest the show gets but feels unpolished. It exists to question the worth of the pirates, especially legalised, but fails to make good on that challenge. It’s also written to setup a movie due next year so various elements feel like brief teases more than anything. Some longer standing plot threads are addressed though and refreshingly not in the way you might expect.
CGI is used for the various spaceship sequences, showcased beautifully in the opening sequence. This is far removed from the awkward gimmicky use of CGI by other shows, being well staged and creating a nice contrast to the human characters being animated more traditionally. The spaceship designs themselves add a sense of history the story, with the Bentenmaru and its siblings looking like retro NASA rockets while the more modern ships of governments and corporations resemble the more refined craft you’d see in the likes of Star Trek or Gundam. A plucky ship is a necessity for a space yarn and the Bentenmaru now holds a place in my heart next to the Millennium Falcon and the TARDIS.
The Bentenmaru does indeed get a fine further showing in the series’ opening, a visual and audio treat crossing J-pop with traditional pirate ballads. It’s one of the true joys of the show, something I looked forward to seeing during each of the 26 episodes.
In terms of actual acting it’s mostly solid. Luci Christian offers a perfect performance as Marika, making the character sound natural whether talking to her friends or issuing commands on the bridge. All of the central pirates receive good acting including Carli Mosier’s sultry Misa, Chris Patton’s calm and cool helmsman Kane, and George Manley’s splendid turn as Schnitzer, making a character you’d visually assume to define by his body instead define by his mind.
Most of the weaker performances come from the actors playing the yacht club, a problem exacerbated by an overall translation issue. I mentioned in the Gintama review that once or twice, Sentai didn’t bother to translate Japanese terms they easily could. Bodacious Space Pirates makes this worse in a way that spreads blame to both scripts and actors. The script decides to keep Japanese honorifics in both the subtitles and dub, meaning you have English speaking actors using terms like “san,” “sama,” and “senpai” when English equivalents easily exist. I initially assumed this was to balance out a running gag where Chiaki is called “Chiaki-chan” to her chagrin but it quickly becomes an annoyance and makes little sense. The worst case emerges when Gruier and her sister join the cast, the younger one constantly referring to her sibling as “onee-sama.” When this first occurs the dub correctly translates it as “big-sister” and the Japanese is kept to the subs. But by the second set the production has decided it belongs directly in the dub which in turn leads to my other complaint: Japanese pronunciation amongst the dub cast varies greatly. Something like a Japanese character name (the one thing that should be kept) may have 2-3 different pronunciations here.
Adding to this, there are often periods where the dub adds dialogue to fill time when lines read shorter in English. This is understandable but the majority of said lines cast characters in a negative light, especially the crew of the Bentenmaru dropping insults to Marika when she requests status updates. To my mind that’s significantly altering the characters, especially when the plot centers on Marika’s journey to becoming a respected space pirate captain.
It’s still quite possible to watch and enjoy the show via the dub (indeed, I did) but these are serious issues that need to be addressed. Professional productions should not be furthering the silliness that Japanese is a secret language for those who buy anime.
Extras are quite low, limited to clean versions of the opening and ending and a few trailers.
If I had to sum up Bodacious Space Pirates in one word, it would likely be “consistent.” The show is a lot of fun to watch, has great characters and offers quality script and animation. At the same time there’s an undercurrent that things aren’t being pushed quite as far they could be and the likes of the yacht club just waste airtime. However, it avoids the feeling of insulting your intelligence I could label various other shows with and really is a lot of fun. I’d definitely recommend it and hope that when the movie is released it ups the strengths and exorcises the weaknesses.
Bodacious Space Pirates (UK Edition) Part 1 & Part 2 are available on DVD from Amazon.co.uk