"If you want to become a real man, come aboard my ship…"
Why don't I like Space Pirate Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey? We're talking about one of the more enduring creations of the massively influential Leiji Matsumoto, a script by Sadayuki Murai, one of the writers for the deliciously creep-tastic Perfect Blue, and direction by Rin Taro, also known for directing Metropolis. What's not to like? Plenty, as it turns out, starting with the idea that there's no excuse for doing the same-old-same-old when you have a chance to reinvent.
Facts of the Case
Captain Herlock, a pirate space captain who has become something of a legend due to being out of the limelight for a while, returns to face a new threat to humanity. Humans have extended their reach into space too far, and an old evil has risen up to crush them. As he once defied naysayers and pioneered travel into space by reaching out to the stars, Captain Herlock now forces the hand of the human race again as he steps up to fight this new nemesis. He takes the boy of a deceased friend under his wing, reunites with his old crew, and boldly pursues his foes.
Space Pirate Captain Herlock was created several years ago by Leiji Matsumoto, who is also known for Galaxy Express 999 and Star Blazers (AKA Space Battleship Yamato). Although I've never seen any Space Pirate Herlock titles specifically, I have seen much of his other work, and I love Space Battleship Yamato. No one but Matsumoto can convince me a battleship from WWII is capable of spaceflight. He has rightfully been a heavy influence on modern anime style. This latest Herlock series, which wrapped in 2003, attempts to recapture the Matsumoto magic with a new storyline that brings Herlock back to the forefront of the action.
Although this seems like an exciting idea, I found that the first four episodes flew wildly past their mark, with overly dramatic scenes and an over-stylized look. Herlock is supposed to be a man among men, but here he comes off as swaggering and arrogant rather than considered and forceful. He seems more like a man with something to prove than one with strong beliefs, although he talks often about his desire to live free. In this respect, there is probably some reliance on an existing fan base to carry over their appreciation for Herlock to this series. For newbies like myself, I just wasn't feeling it.
While there are a few good moments in this new Herlock adventure that can be savored, the rest felt uninspired and derivative. The creative team got the bluster right, but not the charm. Characters are introduced slowly, and then quickly whisked into new situations, before we have time to connect with them. Herlock himself never lets his guard down, even as a secret look just for the audience. This was something I always found very appealing about the captain in Space Battleship Yamato—even when he was unflappable and taking care of business, we got to see that it worried him, too. The viewer knew his feelings and his inner thoughts, and there was a connection. I don't feel that connection here.
The print for this DVD is unpleasantly soft, with colors that bleed into each other slightly, giving everything a mushy look. Since much of the Herlock video out there is older and would be grainy when viewed today, perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to evoke classic Herlock, but it was misguided. Other than that, the print is relatively free of defects, and with four episodes per disc, shows only minimal compression artifacting. The soundtrack fares much better, with the Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital surround having a bit more echo and reverb than the English 5.1 track. The English voice acting, as usual for a Geneon release, is superb, and even improves on the Japanese version in some sections, such as when supernatural creatures speak. There are two subtitle tracks, one for signs only, and one for signs and subtitled dialogue. Extras amount to clean opening credits and some sort of interlocking pencil case, part one of which comes as an insert in the DVD case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my displeasure with these characters, I liked the basic story. Nothing terribly new or inventive, but I'm a sucker for space dramas. I also like the supernatural elements that cropped up in these first episodes, and what it promises for the rest of the series. The creative team were careful to make this a truly stand-alone production, so even those not familiar with the Herlock universe can pick it up and enjoy the story. Exposition about the universe is woven into the story well enough that it keeps up a fairly brisk pace and never bogs down in details.
If you've seen Blade Runner, you'll appreciate the sort of film noir look they went for in this anime. It isn't raining, but it really should be—most scenes take place at night or in the black of space, and make full use of reflected and absorbed light to create moods. Classic good vs. evil themes are used here, especially the time-honored technique of putting the good guy in the spotlight, while evildoers stay in the shadows. Even when the actual good guys have bad guy roles, you know who they are because of the way they are presented.
Bottom line is this: fans of Space Pirate Captain Herlock are going to dig this short (13 part OVA) series, which reprises many iconic images and elements from the original, right down to the character designs. If you are considering this title for the first time, however, I would suggest trying to get your hands on some classic Herlock first, or perhaps one of Matsumoto's other classics. Cowboy Bebop this ain't.
Space Pirate Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey is hereby scuttled to the Planet of the Rubbish Heaps.
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Scales of Justice
• Clean original Japanese opening for first episode
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