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Harlock: Space Pirate: Venice Review

Harlock: Space Pirate
"Harlock: Space Pirate"

The Bottom Line

Japanese animation giant Toei makes a bid to get into Hollywood territory with this 3D space epic.

Venue

Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Cast

Shun Oguri, Haruma Miura, Yu Adi, Arata Furuta, Ayano Fukuda, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Maaya Sakamoto, Miyuki Swaashiro

Screenwriters

Harutoshi Fukui, Kiyoto Takeuchi, based on the manga “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” by Leiji Matsumoto

Director

Shinji Aramaki

Popularized in a television series in the late 1970s, Leiji Matsumoto's sci-fi manga classic about a freedom-fighting galaxy outlaw gets a lavish big-screen reboot.

VENICE – Power up the dimensional oscillator, crank the kaleido converger matrix, prepare the jovian accelerator, and if we must, release the dark matter as we switch to In-Skip jump mode and undo the nodes of time. If that cheesy sci-fi babble means anything at all to you, or at least stokes your curiosity, chances are you’re among the manga fans and gamers who will get a kick out of Harlock: Space Pirate.

A lavish 3D animated reboot of the culty intergalactic comic saga created by Leiji Matsumoto in 1977, the Toei Animation film is too convoluted in its plotting, firing off great gobs of indigestible exposition and arcane techno-speak. But its impressive production values and pedal-to-the metal action should get hardcore geeks on board.

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Due out in Japan on Sept. 7, the film was budgeted at $30 million, a hefty investment by local standards. It departs from the traditional Japanimation look of the television series that gained popularity in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, updating the original story as a full-CGI feature that incorporates motion-capture elements for enhanced facial expressiveness and smoothly rendered body movement.

The result combines new-fangled photorealistic animation with a footing in traditional anime style. While the original Japanese cut world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival, an English-language version reportedly is being readied for international markets.

An opening text scroll outlines how the human race dispersed across the galaxy as Earth’s resources were depleted, but a movement to return to the mother planet sparked the Homecoming War. A governing body called the Gaia Coalition was formed to restore order, its elders declaring Earth an off-limits sanctuary. But one allegedly immortal outlaw, Captain Harlock (Shun Oguri), has been on Gaia’s wanted list for a century as he continues to defy federation rule.

A slim-hipped taciturn type with an eye-patch and a cool thatch of facial scarring, Harlock appears to have his own personal wind machine to work his cape and flowing rock-star hair. His ship, the Arcadia, is an impressive pirate vessel with a death’s head prow and a tattered Jolly Roger, billowing clouds of black smoke as it plows through space.

Wheelchair-bound Gaia fleet leader Ezra (Toshiyuki Morikawa) dispatches his brother Logan (Haruma Miura) to infiltrate the Arcadia crew and kill Harlock. But once he gains the trust and respect of the space pirates, Logan is awakened to Gaia’s corruption, gradually discovering that Harlock’s time-reversal mission is Earth’s only hope for regeneration. The double agent’s divided loyalties cause him to clash with Ezra, stirring up bitter sibling resentments. At the same time, Logan sees reflections of himself in Harlock, a connection that will impact his destiny.

While the basic plot sticks pretty much to sci-fi archetypes and clear save-or-destroy conflicts, the storytelling in Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi’s screenplay overloads on ever-evolving mission strategies, making it a tad exhausting to follow. And there are arguably too many characters included that only longtime aficionados will care about.

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There’s Ezra’s green-thumbed wife Nami (Maaya Sakamoto), who’s also the still-burning flame of Logan’s youth; an alien babe named Mimay (Yu Aoi), who wafts ethereally around the Arcadia offering enigmatic advice; burly asskicker Yulian (Arata Furuta), who looks like he was cloned from Forest Whitaker; and fierce female warrior Kei (Miyuki Sawashiro), who fades in importance after initially appearing to occupy a central role – though she shows some gratuitous skin in a zero-gravity shower scene. There’s also a squawking vulture-like bird called Tori (Ayano Fukuda) that perches on Harlock’s shoulder providing secret intel.

But even with that popular toon fixture of the animal sidekick, there’s nothing that could be called comic relief in this accelerated action adventure shaped around themes of freedom, honor, comradeship and fate. The elaborate videogame aesthetic will be a turnoff to some, as will the limited human involvement, but others with the patience to wade through the film’s thicket of plot will be entertained.

Director Shinji Aramaki (Starship Troopers: Invasion) sticks mainly to a breakneck pace, working with co-editor Ryuji Miyamura to navigate an unusually high number of cuts per scene for an animated feature. But the director has no aversion to pausing over the occasional soapy moment whenever Nami is onscreen. The rich detail of Hiroaki Ueno’s production design, and Tetsuya Takahashi’s bombastic symphonic score help make this all in all a slick package.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Cast: Shun Oguri, Haruma Miura, Yu Adi, Arata Furuta, Ayano Fukuda, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Maaya Sakamoto, Miyuki Swaashiro, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Chikao Otsuka
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Screenwriters: Harutoshi Fukui, Kiyoto Takeuchi, based on the manga “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” by Leiji Matsumoto
Production company: Toei Animation
Producers: Yoshi Ikezawa, Joseph Chou, Rei Kudo
Director of photography: Kengo Takeuchi
Production designer: Hiroaki Ueno
Music: Tetsuya Takahashi
Editors: Shinji Aramaki, Ryuji Miyamura
Concept mechanical design: Atsushi Takeuchi
Concept character design: Yutaka Minowa
CGI supervisor: Kengo Takeuchi
Sales: GFM Films
No rating, 115 minutes