Monday, June 10, 2019

SSX, Eternally Orbiting

The 1980s! Not the sexy Miami Vice 1980s of pastel blazers, cocaine, and insider trading, but the nerdy suburban 1980s of cartoons, comic books, and computer clubs. Specifically the computer club in Conyers Georgia, where I'm off in the corner luring future Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses away from their Commodores and Apple II s with Eternal Orbit SSX on a 13 inch color TV. 

Eternal Orbit SSX was a TV sequel to a movie we'd never seen, itself the prequel to a TV show we'd also never seen, starring characters we didn't know in a language we didn't understand. But none of that mattered, because of Japanese animation's power to entertain across cultural boundaries in general, and specifically because SSX is all about Captain Harlock in black leather and scars and big stompy space boots, tooling around outer space in a giant battleship with a skull on the front, blowing things up in ways that nerdy 80s teens literally could not stop watching. 

Especially riveting for that computer club crowd was a scene in episode 4. Harlock's blasting his way through a space station crawling with faceless enemy-alien Illumidas soldiers. Suddenly he finds himself at bay, faced with a squad holding Kei Yuki and her space-journalist father hostage. They open fire. Harlock uses his cloak to mask his movements, Shadow style, and leaps from the ceiling to blast down the rest of the soldiers. Struck down, the Illumidas commander struggles to lift his pistol. Harlock stares as the gun barrel rises, pauses, falls. Then Harlock casually raises his own Cosmo-gun and blasts that Illumidas commander point blank in the skull. 

This is not the kind of cartoon hero behavior we expected in the 1980s. In fact I don't know if we expect this kind of behavior now. What I do know is that when screened for unsuspecting '80s audiences, this was surefire 100% entertainment. And yet, in spite of moments like this, Eternal Orbit SSX failed to find a TV audience in Japan, was cancelled after half a year, and took thirty-six (!!) years to legitimately reach English-language audiences. 

SSX wasn't popular in Japan and it wasn’t particularly popular with the Western anime fans that finally caught up with the show later in the decade. Raised on the transforming fighter planes of Macross and Mospeada, the space colony mecha warfare of Zeta Gundam, and the male-gaze girls' school battles of Project A-Ko, these 1980s-style anime nerds didn't have time for yet another trip with a very 70s space pirate. 

Were we experiencing Matsumoto burnout? After three series and four films worth of Space Battleship Yamato, after one Harlock TV series and a Harlock movie, after Galaxy Expresses and Danguard Aces and Starzingers, with a Queen Millenia looming on the horizon, maybe we'd had enough of Leiji Matsumoto for a while. SSX became a coda for that era, a winding down of a time when SF cartoons meant fleets of battleships, impossibly thin female leads, and supporting casts of squat dudes with crazy hair and thick glasses. All that would vanish with SSX

A sequel to the 1982 Toei feature Arcadia Of My Youth, Eternal Orbit SSX (airing October 13, 1982 – March 30, 1983) continued that film's narrative of an Earth defeated by the Illumidas Empire and how forcibly demobilized Solar Federation space battleship captain Harlock chases away those defeat blues by teaming up with his engineer pal Tochiro Oyama, donning a new set of sharp space pirate threads, and blasting off in the giant unstoppable space battleship Arcadia, conveniently built by Tochiro just in case some cosmic freebooting became necessary. Together with galactic free-trader Emeraldas (herself another satisfied space battleship owner) the trio seek freedom in the cosmos away from the quisling Earth Occupation Government and the ever expanding reach of the Illumidas. 

SSX literally starts before Arcadia Of My Youth ends. The film's final battle scene is recut for TV to include audience-identification character Tadashi Monono, a young wanna-be bounty hunter who splits the difference between 999’s Tetsuro and the 1978 Harlock’s Daiba - he’s too young to shave, but old enough to know he’s better suited cooking for the Arcadia’s crew than he is as a space gunslinger. In a Matsumotoverse that usually extols the never-flinching last-stand steadfastness of never ever backing down, Monono shines as one of the few characters allowed to change his mind, exhibit personal growth, and to royally screw up on occasion. 

The rest of SSX’s supporting cast also feels like slightly-off version of characters we’ve previously seen. Revi fills the “little girl” position Mayu will fill in 1978, while being a carbon copy of (and sharing a voice actor with) the doomed Mira we saw in the Arcadia movie. Dr. Ban is probaby the most professional and least alcoholic of any of the squat Matsumoto space doctors. Kei Yuki, here the daughter of a space journalist instead of a space scientist, is still rocking that red and blue outfit, but gets even less to do here than in 1978. The faceless lady alien quota is filled by Arcadia Of My Youth's La Mime, who is not the Miime we saw in '78, but that Miime’s sister, or so we would have learned, had SSX not gotten the axe. 

no ghosts or onions on the Arcadia, please

Emeraldas, the X in SSX, remains an enigmatic astral traveler, but spends most of this series absurdly unseen. She stars in a slew of her own easily adaptable manga adventures that could easily fill a third of the screen time, but SSX won't let her. Even episode 7, “X is Emeraldas”, is mostly people talking about Emeraldas, or Emeraldas seen in footage from Arcadia Of My Youth, or our Arcadia crew rescuing Emeraldas from an Illumidas trap. We'll see the same in the other Emeraldas-themed episode, “Save Emeraldas.” With only 22 episodes, this series shouldn't be repeating itself. 

Apologies to the gals but this is Captain Harlock's show and he's in just about every shot, whether he's looking stern at the wheel of the Arcadia, dodging Illumidas task forces, negotiating his way through a galaxy under occupation, or trying to tie together plot threads that dangle all the way from the Galaxy Express film to the '78 Harlock series, counting on his baked-in charisma to carry SSX past the rough patches of clunky animation, creaky sci fi-cliche stories, and a ponderous cosmic seriousness leavened only slightly by Tochiro Oyama's everyman lack of pretense. As a genius inventor Tochiro is always there to repair machines, act as comedy relief to Harlock's straight man, deliver useful expository dialogue to supporting characters, and pine after Emeraldas, whom he never really spends any time with at all. Aren't they supposed to have a kid together? 

Tochiro built the Arcadia, but his other technological triumph is the SSX. Not the SSX that stands for the Illumidas outlaw designations assigned to Harlock, Tochiro, and Emeraldas, but the SSX that's the codename for the orbiting fortress Tochiro built during the war as a secret supply and repair base. The Solar Federation's capitulation forestalled its deployment, but Harlock and crew find it indispensable. The SSX is a central unit with eight disc-shaped sections that can be deployed independently, is sometimes disguised as a comet, and the whole thing travels in an endless orbit (get it?). 

SSX the TV series also meanders a bit. The show coasts on the epic Wagnerian cosmic-opera momentum of the Arcadia film, but fails to generate its own Weltanschauung. SSX doesn't have charismatic arch-enemies or an evil master plan to thwart. We're never told exactly where the Illumidas came from or why they're hell-bent on conquering the galaxy. Give it a few episodes and we start to wonder exactly how the Illumidas conquered their empire in the first place. They seem to be a collection of incompetents and screwups run ragged by a one-eyed guy in a tacky green spaceship. The Illumidas don't have Desslars, Domels or Hakkens or any of those handsome Matsumoto bad boys you love to hate. Just faceless green goons, their storm troopers sleek and slim, a faint echo of the Mechanized Empire troopers from Adieu 999

Arcadia vs Deathshadow

The most memorable SSX enemies are all turncoat Earthmen forced by circumstance to fight for the Illumidas, who at least exercise commendable thrift in putting their conquered foes to work. Grounded space captain Bentselle signs on to fight Harlock in Harlock’s old ship the Deathshadow, last seen crashlanding in the Arcadia film.This tragic encounter leaves Bentselle a mechanized survivor, who, having apparently seen the Galaxy Express 999 film, eventually beaches the Deathshadow in its designated parking spot on planet Heavy Meldar. Former Solar Federation spaceship designer and 1850s riverboat gamber fashion victim Mr. Zone becomes the show's primary antagonist by default. Carrying out a prewar grudge against Harlock by wheedling ships and crews out of the Illumidas and using them up in one ill-fated scheme after another, Zone's obsession has its own hidden agenda, as we learn late in the show. Speaking of turncoats and quislings, the traitor Earth prime minster Triter briefly reprises his role from the Arcadia film. Triter shows up for two seconds early on and then vanishes completely from the narrative, depriving SSX of what might have been an enjoyable, thoroughly contemptible character. 

the hateful and stylish Mr. Zone

How does this hands-off management style work for the Illumidas? Poorly. The Arcadia flies rings around the junkyard of lame, non-souped-up wimpmobiles that creak out of the Illumidas’ outer-space shipyards. Their fleet includes cigar-shaped wuss-boxes, flattened shoebox deathtraps, and agglomerations of cylinders and cubes that seem like rejected mechanical designs from other, more successfully designed series. These are not space battleships anybody would want to build model kits of, perhaps another reason SSX didn’t last very long. 

The Illumidas were perhaps intended as filler; the original Eternal Orbit SSX plan was for the series to wedge itself firmly into the Galaxy Express 999 mythos. There's a hint of this in the first episode, in which 999's Maetel is listed as a wanted criminal alongside Harlock. Supposedly the machine people were to rise up as a menace, Toei would insert that sweet Harlock footage from the 999 films, eventually they'd battle the Black Knight as seen in Adieu 999, and then SSX would end right where the 1978 Harlock series starts. I'll give team SSX points for anticipating the current trend of prequels and sequels and timeline-jumping that replaces actual interesting writing in today's genre media, but we'll never know if SSX's version of the Mechanized Empire would have clicked with TV audiences or not, because those TV audiences had had quite enough of SSX, thank you. 

The series is Harlock with the weird edges filed down, minus all the meandering ancient astronaut stuff from 1978 and with the WWII metaphors dialed way, way back. SSX lacks Space Battleship Yamato's quasi-religious sense of the unknown galaxies and there’s none of the wistful romanticism of Galaxy Express 999. SSX is all business, and that business is watching the clock and waiting for quitting time. Contrast that to a show where cute girls fight for the love of a transforming robot fighter-plane pilot amidst 80s pop music, and you might see how viewers would change channels. 

It's late in the SSX game when the series finally starts delivering the baroque Greek ruins and recovered memories leading to the show's ostensible story arc, the search for the legendary lost planet Arcadia. We only see the SSX a few times in SSX as the Arcadia searches for the planet Arcadia and the audience gets vaguely irritated at having to keep track of all the different SSXs and Arcadias. Somewhere out there is Arcadia, the source of some sort of vague ultimate power that apparently can both power a galaxy and give plot momentum to a TV anime. If Harlock has a specific plan as what to do once he finds this mystery planet, this “Treasure Island in Space,” he’s keeping it close to his eyepatch. Meanwhile Mr. Zone has very precise ideas about what he’s going to do with Planet Arcadia's St. Valkyrie’s Fire. This space MacGuffin / particle energy force is controlled by SSX's last minute entry into the pantheon of Leiji Matsumoto Space Goddesses, the Queen of Arcadia, and she gives it away free of charge to anyone brave enough to travel to the end of space through many dangers, including that hoariest of SF cliches, the graveyard of lost spaceships. 

Eternal Orbit SSX races to its conclusion in a panicky rush. Tochiro bravely battles his incurable space disease long enough to repeat the consciousness-transference scene we saw in the Galaxy Express film. Mr. Zone reveals his plan all along was to (spoiler!) use the super energy from Arcadia to destroy the Illumidas and take over Earth for himself. We learn in one timely bit of dialog that he'd spent months executing his complicated scheme to secretly crew the Illumidas fleet with loyal Earthmen, who revolt at his command and smash their Earth occupation forces. That's right, it turns out Harlock has spent 22 episodes showing off and making big speeches in outer space while the ostensible villain has been the only character taking concrete steps to bring about actual change. Of course, the first thing Mr. Zone does with his new found authority is to send his fleet to attack Captain Harlock, which turns out pretty much the way you’d expect it to. The Illumidas are dispensed with by half a minute’s worth of deux ex machina handwaving, leaving Harlock free to blast off into obscurity after ditching Revi and Tadashi Monono on Earth with orders to fix the joint up. 

This isn't to say there aren't enjoyable moments in SSX. If you're a fan of Captain Harlock, Tochiro Oyama, Emeraldas, and Leiji Matsumoto's character and worldbuilding in general, you'll find enough happening in the show to keep you coming back. That's how strong these characters are. There are, of course, standout episodes where the animation and story rise to the challenge - Episode 17 (The Great Sandstorm: Communication Impossible) and 18 (Rescue Emeraldas) are some of the best. Shingo Araki, the guy who put Rose Of Versailles on the anime map, defined the magical girl anime style, and who, along with Michi Himeno, made Saint Seiya a worldwide hit, here continues his streak of designing characters for Matsumoto series (he’s the guy that slicked up Danguard Ace). With SSX, Araki brings his bold yet delicate touch to Harlock, Kei Yuki, Emeraldas, the Professor, Mary Ann, and the rest. Araki directed four episodes and they’re generally the best of the bunch, filled with goofy moments where Tochiro battles the newly-arrived cat Mii-kun and Kei Yuki actually gets to do something, where the series almost matches its potential. Instead, there's a lot of repurposed Arcadia Of My Youth animation, or static shots of people staring at things, or long shots of the Arcadia moving from one place to another, or a boring looking Illumidas spaceship moving from one place to another. Hardly the dynamic, innovative Japanese anime we’d been promised, and not nearly as interesting as the Eternal Orbit SSX pilot film. 

our first glimpse of the SSX Pilot Film, as seen in the Arcadia Of My Youth Roman Album

Included on Discotek Media's recent DVD release, the pilot is one of those legendary anime artifacts previously glimpsed tacked into the last few pages of the Arcadia Of My Youth Roman Album, a collection of tantalizing images teasing new and much stranger adventures for Harlock and his crew. Promising a SSX that's weirder, more colorful, and certainly more distinctive than the SSX we got, the pilot is a sizzle reel of the Arcadia blasting its way through spaceships lifted from other shows, while strange aliens lurk past six-guns, WWII tanks, and spaghetti western lynchings, altogether a lusty, violent, beer-drinking, and Dvorak's New World Symphony-filled (you can't have a Harlock anime pilot without the New World Symphony) anime that, sadly, the actual show failed to deliver. 

it's SSX pilot film beer o'clock 

Discotek’s SSX release is itself a pleasant surprise for a lot of us who never thought we’d see the show available in North America. The 22 episodes are on three standard DVDs, subtitled in English, and the set includes original TV commercials and the SSX pilot, which somehow looks sharper than the slightly fuzzy, less than optimal transfer of the actual SSX episodes in this set. My old SSX laserdiscs might be delivering better video, but of course, they aren’t subtitled. And try buying a LD player these days! Eternal Orbit SSX is also available for streaming on Crunchyroll, a veritable Arcadia of SSX content for the anime fans of today that can now access the show without risking the  wrath of the Illumidas, the dangers of the Sargasso Of Space, or the slight inconvenience of getting off the couch. 

TV ad for SSX sportwear

We might still feel nostalgic for the 1980s, but I think we've all moved on from 8th generation VHS tapes of sequels to prequels to TV shows in foreign languages without benefit of subtitles or even bad American dubbing. We might have lost a touch of our innocence now that we know what's actually happening in Eternal Orbit SSX, a show that might not have lived up to the dramatic space opera we conjured up thanks to youthful enthusiasm and bad language skills. And clearly, we can live without dragging our TVs and our VCRs through the Georgia heat to a computer club clear across town. But will we ever again feel that electric, slightly outrageous thrill at seeing Captain Harlock dispense brutal cosmic Dirty Harry-style space-frontier justice for the first time? Maybe we're all somehow chasing our own youth through the cosmos, with our own code numbers, in our own Eternal Orbits. 

-Dave Merrill

1 comment:

Daryl Surat said...

In 2019, Harlock SSX has seen an unexpected spike in profile thanks to being featured in Super Robot Wars T, the latest installment of the long-running turn-based RPG series of videogames focusing on crossovers between various Japanese robot anime from the 1970s to today. It was never expected that Captain Harlock would appear on account of well, there not actually being any giant robots in his show, but the same was thought of the Yamato a few years ago for Super Robot Wars V. The game story is a messy grand unification of several shows in one--not unheard of for Captain Harlock, though this features far fewer people talking to one another on video screens--but Captain Harlock remains the most wanted man in the galaxy, and Mr. Zone pops up every now and then to send his questionably effective creations out to be blown up. The game even got 80 year-old Makio Inoue to reprise his role as Harlock, since it's specifically the Harlock SSX take on the Arcadia. Koichi Yamadera, who voiced Harlock in more recent outings, is also in the game albeit as the guy (initially) looking to capture Harlock for the reward: Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop.

Those Super Robot Wars games are how a lot of classic anime stays alive in 2019. In recent years, official English translations of these notoriously text-heavy games have been made available for Playstation 4 and now Nintendo Switch, and sales of the English language versions are exceeding that of the Japanese editions. So a lot of those fans buying it for Cowboy Bebop will be getting introduced to Captain Harlock in turn. In a fashion, the circle comes around as the game translations are being handled by highly dedicated fans who, as it turns out, once upon a time were Anime Weekend Atlanta attendees, singing along in the video rooms as Great Mazinger and Getter Robo G joining forces to fend off those darned alien invaders.