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The Sea Of Stars: Arcadia Of My Youth

by on July 28, 2011

Space! Oh, frozen Sea of Stars!
My spirit will continue to defy you!
The colder and stricter you become, the hotter my blood will likely continue to burn.
The increasing scars I have in exchange for freedom, and burning pain, are signs that I live.

~Lyrics from “Arcadia Of My Youth” by Yamakawa Keisuke

If there was ever a golden era for sci-fi in Japanese animation, 1974 to 1989 was surely it. These were the years that pioneered a myriad of titles that ought to be known to devoted anime fans: Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Patlabor, Akira, The Wings of Honneamise, The Superdimension Fortress Macross, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and Galaxy Express 999. Even Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell just manages to fit, since it started out in 1989 as a manga published in Kadokawa’s Young Magazine. These are but selected highlights, not even accounting for the small army of mecha shows and other, more obsure SF titles that were created during this period. But today I’m going to turn the spotlight on a creation of Leiji Matsumoto that I consider exceptional, the one I admire him most for even over Galaxy Express 999 and his tremendous creative influence on Yamato: Captain Harlock, a lonely but tremendous figure in the pantheon of anime heroes.

For fans Matsumoto’s creations are (in)famous for not conforming to a single, cohesive continuity in their many iterations over the years, but the core qualities that make his characters who they are is reliably consistent; Harlock is no different. He is a space pirate and easily the closest thing Japanese animation has to a romantic hero; he lives by uncompromising integrity and a sense of honor regardless of what might happen or who turns against him. He is unflinchingly loyal to his truest friends and a brooding, relentless enemy to his opponents. He is a heroic contrast to a society that is repressive at worst and stagnant at best, depending on the setting of the story he is in. One animated space opera in particular illustrates these qualities and Harlock’s greatness better than all the others: 1982’s Arcadia Of My Youth.

At its core, this was a movie about fighting losing battles. After a brief prologue we have Harlock crashing to Earth with his warship, the Deathshadow, the last remnant of military might for Earth’s Solar Federation in the 30th century. The Deathshadow’s downfall is a conclusion to a war that has seen the occupation of Earth by the powerful and stereotypically evil Illumidus Empire. The popular perception is that Earth’s situation in this movie parallels the occupation of Japan after World War II, to the point that the back of AnimEigo’s out-of-print DVD release explicitly says so. To the extent that Earth’s population suffers from malaise, destitution, and a broken spirit in the immediate aftermath of the war, this is incontrovertibly true. But there’s more to it; one would be hard-pressed to find a better analogue to Vichy France in animation. The Illumidus preside over a puppet human government, occupied by men convinced that Earth can avoid destruction and eventually regain its prosperity if it can prove itself useful to the empire. Out of respect for his rank and prowess in battle, Harlock is offered a simple choice by the Illumidus: join the new regime, or be discharged and become just another refugee living off of carefully-rationed food. He stoically resigns.

But Harlock is not left to brood over his defeat for long. He joins a fight to protect the diminutive Tochiro, a former soldier and technical wiz. As the two form a fast friendship, Harlock also soon learns that an underground resistance persists in opposing the Illumidus, inspired by the radio broadcasts of Maya: Harlock’s long-time sweetheart. She motivates Earth’s population to go on, imploring them to believe in a better tomorrow and to not lose their pride as Earthlings. In time he also encounters Emeraldas, a long-time friend now making a living as a merchant with her own starship. Harlock’s efforts to meet Maya again and resist the empire are interrupted when he runs afoul of their minion, Zoll. Zoll and his men hail from Tokarga, another planet under the Illumidus’ heel, and he was important enough to accept Harlock’s surrender early in the film. To the surprise of Harlock and his friends though, Zoll goes rogue upon discovering a horrific truth: when the Illumidus have nothing more to exploit from a planet they annihilate it, and Tokarga is marked for destruction next despite years of unwilling but faithful obedience for the sake of preventing that very outcome. Zoll is made to realize that he cannot rush home without tipping off the Illumidus that he is on to them, and meanwhile Earth’s resistance struggles. So Harlock and Zoll form a solemn pact; Harlock swears to return to space to aid Tokarga, while Zoll holds the line on Earth in exchange.

It should be noted here that Captain Harlock stories tend to take after early pulp science fiction, in the sense that they are definitely more interested with what makes a good adventure story than with what makes sense. Arcadia Of My Youth is crammed full of improbable things; Harlock’s spaceship having a wooden steering wheel and Emeraldas’ vessel resembling a massive blimp are just the most obvious indicators. The aforementioned prologue treats viewers to a short tale about the exploits of Harlock’s ancestor Phantom F. Harlock, an airplane pilot devoted to exploring the skies. He may or may not have met his end attempting to fly through the Owen Stanley mountains in New Guinea, haunted by the so-called “Stanley Witch”. Since he cannot clear the highest mountain, he jettisons most of his fuel to reduce weight and get a fighting chance to make it over the top: he would rather risk everything to succeed than retreat from the witch’s taunts in disgrace. In the course of his voyage to Tokarga in the present, Harlock has to traverse the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle in outer space and overcome his own iteration of the Stanley Witch. In truth it’s absurdly ironic, but this is a tale that loves its parallels. Through completely unexplained technology Harlock and Tochiro also learn via a flashback that theirs is a fated friendship that dates back to World War II, when Tochiro’s ancestor was rescued by another one of Harlock’s ancestors: a fighter pilot for the Axis Powers (lest this disturb anyone, he states hatred for the war and both dialogue and liner notes explain that he fights out of obligation rather than any allegiance to Fascism). Not only that, the Revi C/12D precision sight on his fighter plane actually manages to play a critical role in the movie–in outer space, roughly a millennium later! There are some other contrivances too, such as the fact that the Arcadia–Harlock’s future pirate ship–was not only single-handedly built by Tochiro in secret, but also powerful enough to have a fighting chance against a fleet by itself.

Yet for all that along with Harlock’s fair share of heroic swashbuckling, the film’s story is shockingly bleak and merciless to its heroes. It is because of his devotion to Maya that Harlock fights the battle that gives him his trademark scar and eyepatch. After Harlock departs for Tokarga on the Arcadia, Emeraldas and Maya are captured. Zoll mounts a rescue, but he is gunned down while Emeraldas is scarred and Maya suffers wounds that eventually kill her. As for Harlock, he and his companions arrive just in time to witness Tokarga’s final moments and recover one survivor, a little girl. But she is too far gone and passes away during the voyage back to Earth. All Harlock can do is go back, bury the girl and apologize to Zoll’s grave, and be there for Maya in her final moments before the Earth government officially banishes Harlock and his supporters from the Earth forever. Harlock immediately offers volunteers a place on his ship, ruthlessly dispatches a cowardly Illumidus officer when he tries to intervene, and fights a ship-to-ship duel with the commander of the empire’s occupying force (seemingly the only honorable Illumidus there is). The Arcadia goes on to destroy even more Illumidus ships in order to escape and the climax is a satisfying spectacle, but left unspoken is the reality that nothing has fundamentally changed while our hero has suffered immense loss.

And yet, incredibly, Arcadia Of My Youth ultimately proves to be solemnly inspirational rather than soul-crushingly depressing. For Harlock is not crushed. Archtypical pirates fly the skull and crossbones to invoke fear in their victoms, but for Harlock his Jolly Roger is a “flag of freedom” that proclaims his determination to fight for his convictions until his bones are all that’s left. He may have lost his love, but he refuses to give up on what she hoped for. He does not mourn the estrangement from his home, he defiantly muses that “Our world is the whole of space!” Even if most people come to believe the official line that he’s a criminal and a troublemaker, it’s enough for Harlock to symbolize defiance for the rest and to attract willing rebels to his ship. Harlock and Emeraldas only command two ships against formidable odds, but they would rather spend their lives fighting a hard struggle than accept the long, slow suffering that comes with repression. In that regard, Captain Harlock is an avatar for the human spirit itself. It can be discouraged, suppressed, wounded in a myriad of ways. But beaten down, defeated for good? Never. Sooner or later new strength is found to endure, just as Captain Harlock will endure and voyage on out in that vast, limitless sea of stars. And lord help those foolish enough to get in his way.

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