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Harlock: Space Pirate (2013)

Shinji Aramaki has in recent years carved out quite the niche for himself in Japan's animation scene. Eschewing the more traditional style of animation used in most anime, he has opted instead to push the limits of high-end 3D CGI animation. In 2013 he brought this style to the work of one of the most legendary figures in anime and manga history, Leiji Matsumoto.  Over the course of several decades, Matsumoto produced a series of epic space operas featuring numerous recurring elements and returning characters. By far the most iconic creation in the whole of the Lejiverse however, was the (literally) immortal Space Pirate Captain Harlock.

In this most recent incarnation, Harlock is a freedom fighter rebelling against a corrupt universe-spanning government named the Gaia Sanction. It follows a young man named Logan (akaYama ) who boards the cursed pirate spaceship Arcadia and joins the crew. Little do his new shipmates suspect though- he's actually working undercover for Gaia with a mission of his own.

First things first- this film looks nothing short of spectacular. While Aramaki's first forays into CGI such as Appleseed tried to blend 3D with a more classical anime look, here he's gone for a much more photo-realistic style. The characters still have the merest hint of stylisation,  allowing it to nod towards Matsumoto's original designs- and largely avoid the dreaded uncanny valley. The designs and visuals are excellent across the board, with the sets, locations, and spacecraft looking equally as good as the characters. Harlock's trusty ship the Arcadia is something of an icon itself, and it has been brought to life with considerable style. With a giant skull carved in the hull, and a classic style galleon at its starboard, it cuts quite the imposing figure. It's not hard to see why it would strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Aramaki's films are only getting more technically impressive and accomplished with each new release, and it's certainly true here. This is easily the best looking of his films we've seen to date.

The action set-pieces are fantastic too, with both space battles and gun-play equally well represented. Harlock himself convinces as a bad-ass with some nifty moves when things go down

Sadly, it's beyond the more superficial elements that the film is less effective. The plot is pure sci-fi bunkum, offering nothing you've never seen done better elsewhere. When Harlock's intentions are finally revealed they make little sense and actually make him less easy to root for.

The characters are pretty shallow across the board, never really becoming anything more than archetypes- fat guy, feisty no-nonsense woman, evil villain and so on. Fortunately, they do a much better job with the titular character himself. He makes for a suitably roguish hero, with his flowing cloak, scar and eye-patch. It's not hard to see why the character has proved so enduringly popular.
Which makes it all the more bizarre that the film chooses to spend so much time on Logan, a much less interesting character. Inspired by the youthful leads of many of Matsumoto's stories he may be, but here he's been turned into a blank and uninteresting pretty-boy. The film spends far too long on the story involving Logan and his evil brother, and it's unlikely you'll really care. For a film named Captain Harlock, there's way too little actual Harlock in it.

The lack of an English dub is a little disappointing, if only because it would allow you to appreciate those gorgeous visuals all the more.The decision to westernise names in the translation is an odd decision too, and will irk many fans.

Such complaints may stop it short of classic status, but it's never any less than entertaining. For all its flaws, it ultimately remains a highly enjoyable romp. A case of style over substance it may be, but what style!