Set against the conquest of Earth by an alien empire and drawing parallels to the post WWII occupation of Japan, Captain Harlock, together with those who will become his lifelong friends, battle against tyranny no matter what the cost.
As they fight the evil Illumidus Empire, the message of the film shines through: that one must stand up for one's beliefs, even when everyone else believes that slavery and suffering are preferable to the sharper pains endured by those who fight for freedom.
When the universe comes to an end, I hope that when it does reboot, that the universe creates a planet populated with nothing but Leiji Matsumoto characters. I'd also like a Yoshiaki Kawajiri planet but that's for another review. The reason I want a planet for Matsumoto's stuff can be summed up in only four words: Space Pirate Captain Harlock. And the greatest story in the Harlock book is his origin story (one of them anyway, more on that later), Waga Seishun no Arukadia or Arcadia Of My Youth to give it it's English title. Based on the character created by Matsumoto which first appeared in the manga Adventures of a Honeybee in 1953, Arcadia opens with the story of Phantom F. Harlock attempting to traverse the Owen Stanley Mountains. But a vengeful witch spirit will not let him cross the summit. But he will not quit and dumping all but ten minutes of fuel, heads back to the summit. Harlock's fate is unknown.
Cut to the end of World War II. Phantom F. Harlock II is flying for the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) despite not being happy about doing this. While picking himself up after a defeat, he meets Tochiro Oyama, a Japanese engineer working for the Germans. Finding he has much in common with Harlock in their attitudes, Tochiro says his wish is to go to neutral Switzerland and develop rockets. Harlock offers to take him there and while trying to cross the Swiss border is shot down just short of the border, injuring Tochiro in the process. Despite danger to himself, Harlock carries his friend across the river and gives him his most prized possession, the Revi C-12D gunsight for his plane. Tochiro watches him go back to face his fate saying that he and Harlock's descendants will be friends forever.
Why is all of this relevant, you ask? Wait, I'm getting to it. Cut to: THE FUTURE!!! Sorry. Like I said, in the future the earth has become the Solar Federation but has fallen to the Illumidus Empire. All ships belonging to the Solar Federation are ordered to return to Earth. One of the last ships to return is commanded by, yep you guessed it, Captain Harlock. Harlock returns to find his race conquered and his superiors not enthused to fight the good fight. In fact they seem downright happy to be slaves. I mean it's easier than having the crap knocked out of you some more, right? After being de-mobbed, Harlock picks up the trail of his former lover, Maya, who is now the "Voice Of Free Arcadia". (Don't ask me what Arcadia actually means. It's easier if you just Wiki it.) Being captured by the Tokargan guards (The Illumidus' footsoldiers) he falls in with an engineer called Tochiro. Tochiro tells Harlock about his life's work: A battleship built under the current HQ of the Illumidus. This ship, called the Arcadia (what the hell is with that name turning up again!?!), could fight against these invaders and is just waiting for a crew.
After the Tokargans, who were not happy to help in the defeat of Earth, learn that their masters are going to betray them, they agree to help Harlock. The plan is this: if Harlock takes the Arcadia to the Tokargan homeworld to save their race from the Illumidus, they will help with Earth's resistance. So with Tochiro, Maya and his old friend Emeraldas, he begins the fight which he has no hope of winning.
Why, after reading this, would you voluntarily watch this? One word: Romance. Not that kind of romance dammit! But the other kind, the romance of heroes, the good old-fashioned melancholic hero who muses on the meaning of life and whether it will be worth it in the long run. Harlock, like I said, has no hope of winning but he fights on because of the age-old adage: A fight that's worth fighting for is worth dying for too. But he's got his work cut out for him. Harlock has to fight his own people, as well the invaders and the Illumidas seem content to watch the fight between the humans they've conquered with amusement. If you can't see the parallels between this movie and the French Resistance of WWII and the invasion of Japan by the Americans, then go read up on it. I can't help you. Matsumoto has long put his feelings on the end of the Second World War and Japan's defeat into his creations but unlike a lot of apologist works, Harlock works because you see the story from everyone's perspective: the invaders, the resistance, the hired muscle and the bystanders. The fact that Harlock is able to mount an effective resistance will at times make you laugh and nod your head in agreement with the man's plight. What of the other characters? Maya seems to me to be a tragic figure. A woman who still loves her former flame, she spends her time in this movie urging her fellow humans that the cause of human freedom is worth fighting for, while telling Harlock that their love is doomed and that he should forget her. Harlock for his part regards his love for Maya in the same context as his fight for human freedom: worth scrapping out for. Tochiro is the eternal optimist who never loses faith in his friend's abilities or convictions. If Harlock is the strength of the movie, Tochiro is the heart. I like Harlock but I love Tochiro. I haven't spoken much about Emeraldas because I can't really tell you what makes her an amazing character without spoiling some key scenes. Suffice to say, her presence in the story has more weight when you realise her importance is not so much in this movie but in the Harlock universe as a greater whole. There are more people to mention but I'd be here for a while.
OK, I've skirted around it. I've tried to ignore it but there's no getting around it. Leiji Matsumoto is crazy. There, I've said it. OK, maybe not crazy but he seems to be determined to keep recreating the Harlock story over and over till he gets it right. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Arcadia of My Youth, Endless Road SSX, Harlock Saga, Gun Frontier and Endless Odyssey can all lay claim to being the "true" story of Harlock and his friends only because in Matsumoto's eyes, they're all legitimate. Every time the story starts, with exception of Endless Road SSX which continues the story set out in Arcadia, it's the same but different. If you watch one Harlock version, you've watched them all but if you have then you will never get tired of the character. Every version is a call to adventure; every different take on a person in the story gives you new insight. Arcadia embodies the very best of the universe. It's the central figure's origin story. Why does he wear that cape? How did he get his hands on the Arcadia? Where did he get the scar and the eye patch? All these questions are answered here. And then thrown out with the next series or the previous one.
The character designs are typical of Matsumoto. If you've ever seen Starblazers/Space Battleship Yamato or Interstella 5555 then you know what I mean. The men are tall and angular and the women are whisp-ish. Maya is the biggest culprit for this. The animation for this film is good. A lot of the backgrounds will look bad especially in panning shots but I will forgive the animators this one time. The scenes in the space nebula and the Owen Stanley Mountains are excellent. The nebula looks alive and angry with wonderfully rendered shots of plasma licking the Arcadia's hull. Plus you really are there with the first Harlock as the snow and ice batter his windshield.
The characters are somewhat hit and miss with mid shots looking a bit bland but those trademark Matsumoto close ups are present. No matter, as I recommend this to all.
Animeigo put this out in 1999 if memory and the internet serves me correctly but it's now out of print but you'll have some luck with eBay. Nice looking remastered print and as good as you can get Japanese audio and English subs plus Animeigo's as-usual exhaustive liner notes. Harlock is available in other forms such as Gun Frontier and Harlock Saga on DVD but if you find this get it. Please enjoy. You deserve a friend like Harlock.
"At the end of the journey, all men think that their youth was Arcadia..."