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Andrew Osmond turns to a life of stellar buccaneering

The recent film Interstellar, not to mention weightier SF sagas like the anime Gunbuster, remind us that time has little meaning for space travellers. In Earthly terms, though, Captain Harlock has been an anime hero/antihero for the last 36 years. He’s a scarred space pirate who, in the words of a MyM magazine profile, “sails the stars on his cosmic galleon, the Arcadia. He battles humans and aliens; his crew are humans and aliens. He defies all authorities, obeying no orders or code but his own. Like a good mythic captain, he appears in endless stories in many guises, sometimes friendly, sometimes forbidding.”

In the new film’s production notes (available on the scifijapan.com website), anime researcher Ryusuke Hikawa discusses Harlock’s appeal. “The character is unbelievably striking,” he says. “His scar and eye-patch, coupled with his skull-adorned clothes and cape, are impossible to forget. Of course his resolute nature of living out his resolve is also appealing. His charisma is unique and the few words he does say sink into your heart immediately, his unwavering stance in life never failing to steal the stage.”

Harlock was created by Leiji Matsumoto, who also conceived Galaxy Express 999 and was one of the main creative forces on Space Battleship Yamato. Following his anime debut in 1978, Harlock has appeared in numerous TV series, videos, a traditionally animated feature film (1982’s Arcadia of My Youth), not to mention a separate career in comics. The character was a particular hit in France, where Albator – as Harlock was renamed – was a landmark title for fans on the level of Akira or Naruto.

Now the space buccaneer is being rebooted for new viewers and the digital generation in Space Pirate Captain Harlock, a lavish CGI spectacular. The film is directed by Shinji Aramaki, who’s already brought a different SF anime universe into CGI – he made three Appleseed films, including last year’s Appleseed Alpha. The film’s writer is Harutoshi Fukui, who also wrote Gundam Universe.

Somewhat provocatively, Fukui suggests that even though Harlock is an iconic character, he still needs updating for today’s audience. “The former Harlock was an unfailing leader who lends a modest helping hand,” Fukui says. “Thirty years have passed and I don’t believe that young people today will be able to connect with that original hero image. If anything, I felt that a hero who experiences anguish, whose ideals have become twisted in some way, is what they would be able to identify with and that was how I went about creating his character for the film.”

While older versions of Harlock often seemed benign and welcoming, the new Harlock is much more ominous. His ship is positively monstrous, a skull-faced battering ram that smashes other spacecraft to flinders. The press notes suggest the darkening of Harlock is a reflection of the times, and of modern Japan. You can compare Fukui’s comment about “twisted ideals” with some remarks in our interview with Kenji Kamiyama, director of Eden of the East.

Kamiyama talked of the new generation of Japanese youngsters as having a “deformed happiness” and a slacker cynicism. Is the new Harlock aimed at the NEET generation? In the ‘making-of’ film included on the home edition of Harlock, Fukui describes Harlock as “having the markings of an introvert.” Aramaki seems to concur. “We wanted to adjust the story to fit modern-day Japan, to create an antihero to embody the sense of entrapment prevalent in Japan.”

Elsewhere Aramaki says, “We talked about wanting non-established fans to properly experience the world of Captain Harlock, to realise that there are men like Harlock who will defy the realities of his era, especially the way things are today… The new Harlock is mysterious and cursed, but also very cool.”

On the other hand, the movie also seems influenced by Hollywood trends, and by Harlock’s caped cousins, the superheroes. Harlock’s press notes specifically reference the films The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, which had decidedly anguished and twisted versions of Batman and Superman respectively. Moreover, the new Harlock was clearly made with an eye to the world market.

Producer Yoshiyuki Ikezawa of Toei Animation explains that his studio wanted to create something which Japan could be proud of – the same impulse which had driven Toei to make its first anime movie, Hakujaden, a half-century ago. “Japanese animation is often talked about through the concept of Cool Japan,” Ikezawa says. “But the Japanese anime market is completely separate from the film market and there are actually very few truly global animated films that are widely embraced the way Hollywood movies are.

“However, Japan’s strong manga background gives us a wealth of characters that have potential global appeal. Give a group of such characters, a fitting story and theme that maximises their potential, add the advanced technology Japan has to offer and I was sure that we could create something that would wow the world.” To this end, Harlock was budgeted at $30 million – still small compared to the budgets for Hollywood CG cartoons, but a mighty outlay for an animated film.

The production process was modelled on Hollywood, with an emphasis on division of labour (modelling, lighting, animation and so on). Usually anime staff must take on far more responsibilities per person. As a Japanese animator, Aya Suzuki, once told us, “In the Western (animation) industry, they’ve probably got five people doing the job of two in Japan.” There were other strategies to organise the film. The press notes also mention that when the storyboards for Captain Harlock were planned, that plan was settled – no story changes during the rest of production!

Although the new Harlock was produced by the venerable Toei studio, the actual animation was contracted to a young outfit, Marza Animation Planet, which grew out of the games giant Sega. Marza’s past credits are in making CGI scenes for games such as the second Hatsune Miku: Project Diva, as well as Phantasy Star Universe and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.

Director Aramaki, of course, was a natural fit for the project, as his own past films involve not just CGI but motion-capture, using the motions of real actors as the basis for animation. In 2014, motion-capture extends to facial capture. Harlock uses not just the actors’ bodily movements but also their facial expressions, a technology deployed to great effects in recent blockbusters like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (remember Caesar?).

The internationalism of Harlock’s approach was described by Pepe Valencia, who served on Harlock as a Creative and Technical Advisor. “At the beginning of the production I had talks with Aramaki and the Executive Producer from Toei to discuss (how) the movie should be developed from a camera/cinematic point of view. One of my main concerns was… how to translate the graphic style of anime/manga into a more cinematic and film environment. I love manga, the freedom in camera angles, lensing, framing and composition is something unique to that style. It was clear we were looking at merging the two worlds, the anime/manga with the Hollywood action style.” (The full interview is at The White Space site.)

According to Arakawa, the new Harlock did good business in France and Italy, suggesting the international-style approach to production paid off. In Japan, though, the film wasn’t a hit. This seems par for the course for all-CG anime, which has been a slender if persistent strand in Japan for more than a decade. (We’ve discussed it on the blog before.)

Yet now CG anime could be on the verge of going big, especially given the staggering success of Disney’s Frozen in Japan last year. Since Harlock’s release, there’s been at least one other CG SF movie, Expelled from Paradise. Like Harlock, this was released by Toei, with animation from a different company, Graphinica. It was written by Gen Urobuchi, who’s a hot property thanks to his work on Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass and Fate/Zero.

Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli has also embraced CGI – well, kind of. As of writing, the TV serial Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is just finishing its run on TV; it’s a collaboration between Ghibli and Polygon Pictures, directed by Goro Miyazaki. Ronja is also, significantly, a primetime kids’ show, pushing home-grown CG anime further into the mainstream.

But the really big CG anime in Japan last year was Stand By Me Doraemon, a digital version of a venerable, national beloved anime about a boy and his robot cat (profiled here). It earned a whopping $86 million, helped by good box-office in Hong Kong and Italy. Speaking in MyM Magazine, Anime Encyclopedia co-author Jonathan Clements speculated that Doraemon might be a game-changer. “We’ve put up with producers saying CG doesn’t work in the Japanese market, ever since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within bombed (in 2001). It means they can’t be arsed to invest in the plant and machinery required for a feature. The Doraemon movie proves the Japanese audience has no problem at all with CG. It’s called the producers’ bluffs. Now they have to put up or shut up.”

As Harlock producer Ikezawa pointed out above, there’s no shortage of other anime and manga properties ripe for CG treatment. Interviewed last August by Anime News Network, Aramaki said he would make another Appleseed film, given the chance. Elsewhere in SF anime, there’ve already been bids to make a CG Battle of the Planets film – how about reviving that idea? Or what would Cowboy Bebop look like as a CG animated spectacle, or Gundam or Macross? Or – dare we suggest it – Akira?

Let’s give Aramaki the last word, from a recent interview for the website The-O Network. Traditionally, Japanese animation is hand drawn. There are some limits to this such as human resources. There is a point where you can’t do anymore…I found (it) very interesting that even though we are using CG, in Japan we want to keep that hand drawing style… I’m really excited because I think (Japan) will have a new form of hybrid animation. Something that looks like cel shading animation, but it’s not. It’s something we have to look forward to.”

Harlock Space Pirate is out on 27th April on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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