Judge Mike Pinsky says that this mediocre installment in Matsumoto's mythology still contains the third best use of "Ride of the Valkyries" in film.
"When you think about it, this is simply another dirty power struggle."—Captain Harlock
There is a subgenre of science fiction known as "space opera," characterized by epic battles, manly heroes, and grand feats of derring-do. Lensman, Star Wars—these are familiar to fans everywhere. In Japan, the unqualified master of space opera is Leiji Matsumoto. When I was a teen, my friends and I watched Star Blazers, the American adaptation of Matsumoto's Space Cruiser Yamato, as if it were a religious rite. Every morning we studied the latest installment, and every afternoon, we explicated it thoroughly. In college, we began to collect our first bootleg anime tapes—blurred third or fourth generation copies with no subtitles—and tried to figure out the mysteries of Galaxy Express 999 and Captain Harlock.
As the years have worn on, Matsumoto has clearly become more interested in shifting the tone of his interconnected universe of characters away from traditional science fiction tropes and more towards, well, the opera side of space opera. And if you are going to do grand opera, Matsumoto is clearly thinking, you should emulate the grandest of all. Harlock Saga (also called The Rhein Gold) borrows its plot from Richard Wagner's formidable Ring of the Nibelungen tetralogy (or, as a Fox marketing executive might dub it, his "quadrilogy").
The mad Alberich has stolen the gold from the heart of Planet Rhein, in order to forge a ring with devastating powers. His sister Meeme is a legendary sorceress who is partly responsible for the "musical radiation" that keeps the universe from flying into chaos. Meeme also happens to be a pal of Captain Harlock, famous space pirate, and she enlists the crew of the Arcadia (Harlock's spaceship) to help her stop Alberich's scheme to conquer the gods. Together, they race to Planet Valhalla, in the galactic core, to save Wotan and the gods from certain destruction. And then there is the matter of that Death Star-style battle station Wotan is building…
In case you have not already guessed, Matsumoto's tale (which is even wilder in the manga version) plays quite fast and loose not only with Wagner, but also with Matsumoto's own mythology. Newcomers will find all this quite puzzling, since we are dropped in the middle of some ongoing continuity. Longtime Harlock fans will find this all frustrating as well, since the continuity is often at odds with the established Harlock universe. There are cameos by fellow space pirate Emeraldas, Galaxy Express heroine Maetel, and a Daiba Tadashi who bears little resemblance to the character familiar from the old Harlock TV series. So is Matsumoto trying to reassure us that this is still the same old Harlock we know? Or is this an attempt to rewrite Harlock's history? Oh well, at least there are no midichlorians.
On its own, Harlock Saga is a throwback. Matsumoto's art design seems firmly stuck in the '70s. This might be fun in a retro fashion, if the animation did not also look like it had come right out of that era. A few clunky CG shots remind us that it is a new millennium, but for the most part, this is a surprisingly cheap production. Matsumoto cannot even put together the expected "giant space battle" scene we expect (especially given the opening credits), stripping it all down to a one-on-one fight between the villain and Harlock at the climax. So much for Gotterdammerung: Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd provoked more fireworks in their Wagner parody.
Maybe the time is just not right for a resurgence of space opera. After all, the latest incarnation of Yamato was a flop, and Harlock Saga seems more dusty than inspired. Central Park Media has reissued this title (originally from 2001) with the same extras as before (a blurry collection of sketches, some incomplete interviews, and a featurette with the American voice cast). But even fans of Matsumoto's epics, who are usually willing to forgive his artistic and narrative idiosyncrasies, will find Harlock Saga an example that the Harlock universe looks like it is ending not with a bang, but a whimper.
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