Tuesday, February 28, 2023

May The Force Five Be With You

Force Five! Not a wind strength measured with the Beaufort scale. Not the 1981 Robert Clouse action movie starring Hapkido master Bong Soo Han. Instead, five different Japanese animation science-fiction sockeroos entertaining us in the early 80's! If you were watching syndicated TV in those days, you might have caught any one of the five on your local UHF station, localized and packaged by Jim Terry's production company and released en masse to independent stations across North America.

Many times this show is identified as "Shogun Warriors", which is, let’s say, in the right ballpark, but the wrong seating section. Shogun Warriors is a Mattel toy line that repackaged Japanese toys for sale in the American market. This is how us 70's kids got die-cast Mazingers, Raideens, and Daimoses in our Lionel Playworlds and our Toys R Usses along with marketing tie-ins that included a Marvel comic. But there isn't a TV cartoon with the "Shogun Warriors" title, and the question is, why not? Why didn't some exec package the Mattel toys along with the Jim Terry cartoons? This isn't rocket-punch science here. Then again, this is the 70's we're talking about, who knows what kinds of handshake deals were going down in the hospitality suites at the big TV distribution conferences? Jim Terry knows, and he ain’t tellin’ why Force Five compilation films were indeed listed as "Shogun Warriors" in the TV Guides.


You can see the early Force Five marketing materials in industry trade magazines, an all-star lineup of UFO Robo Grendizer, Getter Robo G, Space Dragon Gaiking, Planet Robo Danguard Ace, and Great Mazinger. One of these shows would, for some reason probably involving Go Nagai's lawyers, not make the final Force Five team.

Unless you lived in a city with a Japanese-language UHF station, you might not have had a chance to watch the cartoons starring your favorite Shogun Warriors. In fact you might not even know these amazing toys had cartoon tie-ins at all. For a lot of us, the Force Five broadcast was the first time we’d be able to experience something we might have only seen glimpses of, and that something was the Japanese super robot cartoon, brought to us by Jim Terry Productions.

Jim Terry would spend the 80s retooling Japanese shows for the American market, producing several Toei titles for ZIV (Captain Harlock, Candy Candy) and packaging shows from all over the map for a wide variety of home video outfits – Timefighters (Time Bokan) from Tatsunoko, Ninja The Wonder Boy (Manga Sarutobi Sasuke) from Knack Studio, and the Russo-Japanese coproduction he'd retitle Scamper The Penguin. Terry's crew was also responsible for the infamous “Crushers” dub of the Nippon Sunrise film Crusher Joe. Most of the later works would feature musical accompaniment by Mark Mercury's “Bullets” but Force Five thankfully leaves the original music library in place, substituting instrumental versions for tracks with vocals, which work surprisingly well, a testament to composer Shunsuke Kikuchi’s talent.

The final Force Five package wound up being 26 episodes each of the Toei series Danguard Ace, Gaiking, Grandizer, Starvengers aka Getter Robo G, and SF Saiyuki Starzinger, under its new title Spaceketeers. You'll notice how Great Mazinger was mysteriously absent from the final lineup, and we can only speculate as to what kind of letter Dynamic Pro's lawyers sent to Toei's licensing division. How exactly these Force Five episodes aired was dependent on the whims of your home town TV station's program director. For example, Atlanta's Channel 46 aired an hour block of Force Five before a half-hour of Star Blazers on Saturdays for a year or so, making that Saturday morning must-see TV for what we'd later call "anime fans" and leading to any number of conflicts with other, less cartoon oriented Saturday activities. For example one Saturday I had to be at the church yard sale that morning, so I brought a portable B&W television and an extension cord from home, plugged that cord into the wall socket inside the fellowship hall, and ran it out to our garage sale space in the parking lot, just so I wouldn't miss an episode of Danguard Ace and Spaceketeers. Now there's a public display of nascent otakuhood if ever there was one.

As an early 80s Saturday morning TV experience, Force Five met all of our childhood needs by combining super robots, space princesses, evil overlords and wholesale destruction punctuating those Kikuchi soundtracks. Jim Terry's localization is remarkably hands-off, leaving a surprising amount of mayhem and destruction present. The English dubbing is goofy but serviceable, the low points being a few bad celebrity impersonations and some poor attempts at British accents. The least satisfying aspect of Force Five is the limited set of each series, all of which had longer Japanese runs. In practical terms this ensures we never find out if the Krell Corps is defeated or if the Cosmos Queen ever makes it to the galactic center. Of course, compilation versions edited from TV episodes of all five shows aired on cable TV and were released on VHS, so we were able to see a few series' respective climaxes.

Everyone has their Force Five Favorites, but in the interests of fairness we're going to discuss these shows in alphabetical order, and that means Danguard Ace is at bat first. I wasn't a fan of the show when it aired. I was settled into Grandizer and Starvengers and was annoyed at the replacement. Danguard Ace was developed by Leiji Matsumoto and behind the 70s super robot window dressing you can see bits of Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock, and Submarine Super 99 trying to take over. The titular robot itself only appears on the last page of his manga (serialized in Akita Shoten's Boken Oh), and I don't blame him, I don't want to draw the thing either. Danguard is about the race to colonize the tenth planet Promete, one of those mysterious wandering planets Matsumoto would use to good effect later in Queen Millennia. Commissar Krell ("Doppler" in Japan) claims this new planet for his own evil purposes. To back this up he commands the evil Krell Corps from his secret Himalayan base, attacking with legions of mind-controlling-mask-wearing zombies and high-tech robot monsters. The only force defying Krell is the super-weapon Danguard Ace, a collection of clunky aerial vehicles combining into a clunky super robot. Danguard's chief pilot is the young Windstar (Ichimonji Takuma), raised in the shadow of his space pilot father, who vanished mysteriously after betraying his comrades on the first mission to Promete ten years earlier.


Turns out Dad was under the control of Krell all along. Eventually he manages to escape with his freedom, but without his memories, still wearing that Krell mind control mask. When Dad, now dubbed "Captain Mask," shows up at the Danguard base in a stolen Krell fighter, he's immediately put in charge of training pilots for the Danguard program, which he does with rigor and ruthlessness. All the while, father and son are oblivious to their familial bond. Oh, what pathos. Windstar learns to pilot the Danguard, Mask grapples with his missing memories, Commissar Krell sends robot monster after robot monster to destroy the Danguard base, and Danguard Ace the robot finally shows up in episode 11. Eventually the entire cast, which includes the comedy relief kid, the comedy relief robot, and the comedy relief monkey, blasts off for Promete.

Suddenly the show's aesthetic becomes more Space Battleship Yamato and less Mazinger Z, reflecting then-current trends in anime. Captain Mask regains his memories and (spoilers) dies a heroic death, mostly because the kids watching the show in Japan hated that character with a passion. Jim Terry's release didn't include the climax of the series, in which the secret of Promete is revealed and Shingo Araki's character designs depict mysterious space women as well as the charismatic and handsome Krell commander Harken, who tries manfully to bring a spark of drama to an otherwise tedious show.

Gaiking may seem like yet another super robot series starring the usual science-center robot team battling the usual alien plot to take over the Earth. What makes Gaiking special is instead of three or five robot pilots, a team of 68 crews the huge Space Dragon, out of which the Gaiking fighting robot is launched piecemeal. The Space Dragon is an impressive Asian-style mecha-dragon, and the feuding between the former baseball-star Gaiking pilot and the rival Dragon pilot leavens the mood as they struggle against Planet Zela's Emperor Darius and his Dark Horror Corps.


The sidekick characters get to pilot dinosaur-shaped sidekick fighting vehicles, most notably in the last story arc featuring a huge pitched battle on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (the American version reflects then-current events and labels the volcano as "Mt. St. Helens") that's fun and well-animated, as is an earlier subplot about a Zelan-built robot spy-child who turns against his programming and attacks his masters with his robot Pegasus.

Lots of these unique touches make Gaiking something more than standard super-robot fare, and I can't help but think staff like Akio Sugino and Yoshinori Kanada helped to bring a little spark to the show. I wish I'd paid a little more attention to it during the Force Five days, which as I learned later wasn’t the first time Gaiking had been dubbed into English. In the 70s Toei contracted Honolulu-based outfit M&M Communications to dub Mazinger Z and Gaiking. While the Mazinger Z episodes gained fame due to American cable TV broadcasts and the phonetically-sung Isao Sasaki theme song, the Gaiking dub remained obscure, at least to me, until fairly recently. Also obscured was the Go Nagai/Dynamic Pro origins of the Gaiking concept, which Nagai pitched to Toei in the early ‘70s. Toei later developed the series and credited Sugino, which purportedly came as a surprise to Go Nagai and led to some super robot legal battles.

Go Nagai was, however, fully credited for the next series on our list, UFO Robo Grendizer, or as Jim Terry spells it, Grandizer. It's about a guy named Duke Fleed (in America, "Orion Quest"), whose home planet was attacked by the evil Vegans, from the star Vega, not Las Vegas, tough guy. Fleed ditched his doomed planet in the top secret giant saucer-robot Grandizer, or Grendizer, whichever. Escaping to Earth, he was promptly adopted by the local scientific research institute's Professor Valconian and given a job at the ranch next door, run by Wild West fanboy/UFO enthusiast Panhandle and his daughter Brenda.

Johnny, Lance, and the Panhandle clan

Soon enough the Vegans show up to conquer the Earth, while the science center gets a visit from former Mazinger Z star Koji Kabuto, or Lance Hyatt as he's known here. In Grandizer, Koji coasts as a supporting character, flying his homemade UFO against the Vegans, who are a fun bunch of weirdo aliens of varying shapes and sizes. Vegan General Bellicose will belt out ineffectual orders to his subordinate Commander Ding and every once in awhile, Bellicose's face will split open and his four-inch tall wife Lady Gandar will just erupt out of his empty skull to holler at everybody.


When the Vegan scheme of the week threatens Earth, Orion Quest does his thing. Meaning, jumping into the emergency exit chute, zipping through a series of tubes and tunnels, soaring into the Grandizer hangar, exclaiming "Orion Quest!", transforming into his flying outfit, and finally being deposited into the cockpit of the Grandizer robot-saucer combo. When Orion/Duke Fleed feels the situation calls for hand-to-hand action, Grandizer just leaps right out of that saucer and starts kicking robot monster butt with any number of really impressive weapons that include the screw-crusher punch (like a rocket punch, only more pointy), the rainbow beam, the hydro-phasers, the hand beam, the shoulder boomerang, the double sickle, and the Space Thunder.


When our heroes aren't blasting alien saucers there's time for romance; Duke and Hikaru/Brenda have a tentative thing while Koji Kabuto says “Sayaka who?” and crushes hard on Duke Fleed's sister Maria, who also survived their home planet's destruction and appears just in time for Grandizer's mid-show power-up which includes zippy new mecha for Lance and Brenda to pilot, and which is also right around the time Jim Terry quit dubbing episodes for us. So we never get to see the awesome combination robot vehicles featured in the second half of the series, and we never get to see Emperor Vega sliced in two with Grandizer's double sickle. Ooh, what a giveaway. Famously popular in Europe, Grendizer’s record-breaking ratings in Italy were used to sell Force Five to American markets.

Spaceketeers, or SF Saiyuki Starzinger, is the wild card in this pack of shows, one with a female lead and nary a combo super-robot to be seen. This science fiction version of the “Journey To The West” Monkey King legend swaps ancient China for outer space. American audiences might not get the Asian mythological references, so Jim Terry renamed the show Spaceketeers, after the Three Musketeers, which fits the show’s aesthetic reasonably well, I suppose. This series was developed by Leiji Matsumoto to replace Danguard Ace in the original Fuji-TV broadcasts, a fact which will become obvious the minute you spot Spaceketeers’ star, the willowy blonde Princess Aurora, one of a long line of ethereal Matsumoto beauties. 


As our Spaceketeers story opens, mysterious radiation from the center of the galaxy is turning all animal and plant life into weird monsters rampaging through the galaxy. Princess Aurora’s palace on the moon is destroyed and the Empress, or Dr. Kitty as she’s known in Japan, sends Aurora in the spaceship Cosmos Queen to travel to Galactic Center and deal with whatever crazy thing is causing all this chaos. Three mighty space warriors are assigned as her bodyguards for this journey. The cool, aloof Sir Jogo/Aramos, master of the pocket calculator and the Star Copper, is the leader of a water planet. Porkos, or Don Hakka, is our plump comedy relief guy hailing from some kind of mud planet and whose personal craft is the Star Boot. Jan Kugo aka Jesse Dart is the invincible cyborg bad-boy Monkey King character who must learn patience and courtesy when he'd rather be destroying things in his Star Crow.

Episode after episode our heroes launch from the Cosmos Queen to battle animoids and vegemoids on the way to the Deklos system while the Princess stands around, worries, and changes in and out of various outer space mini-skirts and outer space prom dresses. Characters zip around space in their little space scooters dodging zap rays and giant monsters to encounter the various villainous space armadas that have been warped into action by the Deklos system radiation. 


The series has a certain charm, the mythological context works with the SF setting, but the show lacks momentum- at one point the Cosmos Queen just turns around and goes back to Earth because they forgot to turn the TV off, or something. There’s a vagueness to the galactic menace and a weird lack of purpose to the galactic journey of the Spaceketeers, but I guess we should just enjoy the ride; 70s kids across Asia and Europe certainly did.

Last but not least we arrive at my favorite of the Force Five series, Starvengers. This series is the localized version of Getter Robo G, itself a sequel to Getter Robo, the seminal Go Nagai/Ken Ishikawa combination robot series that gave us jet planes that slam into each other to create super robots and battle the underground Dinosaur Empire. Jim Terry didn’t bother with this first series, an understandable move considering the animation is a little primitive and things get a little bloody there when the dinosaurs start getting ripped in half. American viewers began with the fiery funeral of the original Getter Robo robot, and we’re thrown right into Dr. Copernicus building a new, improved Starvengers mecha, finding someone to replace the pilot who died at the end of the first series, and doing both of these things in time to confront the new menace threatening mankind. 


The evil hollow-Earth armies of the Pandemonium Empire seek to conquer the surface world with an army of giant robots and secret agents who communicate via mechanical horns (all the Pandemonium people have horns, because in Japan, they're known as the Hundred-Demon Empire, and devils have horns, obviously). Our Starvengers, in their new Star Dragon, Star Arrow and Star Poseidon machines, must battle for the fate of the entire world. Hero pilots Ryo (now Hummer, yes, Hummer) and aloof anti-hero Hayato, or “Paladin”, are joined by comedy relief baseball fanatic Benkei or “Foul Tip.”

The three spend the rest of the series piloting their Starvengers machines against Pandemonium menaces, supported by Dr. Copernicus in his science center and his daughter Ceres/Michiru flying her Space Glider. There are several reasons this series is my favorite. The robot violence is intense and never-ending, the characters are all either driven by revenge or... well, revenge, mostly, and the villains are bizarre Dick Tracy-style freaks and weirdos, including Captain Fuhrer, whose Japanese name was, yes, "Captain Hitler.” 

I only have two Getter Robo G cels, but I like the ones I have


The design of the various Starvengers vehicles are sleek, powerful and bold. Both as aircraft and as robots, their 70s muscle car look makes them my favorites. Starvengers subverts expectations as Ceres falls for Paladin, because he’s the coolest, proven as he single-handedly destroys the flying fortress of the Pandemonium Empire in a climax we’ll only see in the compilation film.

Force Five was off the air by ‘83 in most markets, but the series lived on in home video. Family Home Entertainment released compilation films and a few episodes from all five series to the growing home video market, the tapes landing in the children’s sections of many local video rentals across the country. Two different cheap labels would later release the same episodes under the titles “Roboformers" and "Z-Force” on bargain-bin SLP-recorded tapes to fill discount retailer shelves. Best Film & Video would also take a turn with those master tapes, and eventually they’d appear in Suncoast Video as part of the infamous “Spaced Out Japanimation” collection.

In recent years some of these former Force Five properties would make their way to North America in various new forms. William Winckler would produce newly-dubbed compilation films for Starzinger, Gaiking, and Danguard Ace, while crowd-pleasers Discotek Media would put a subtitled version of Gaiking on both DVD and Blu-Ray. However, English-language media still lacks any iteration of UFO Robo Grendizer and Getter Robo G. In a world where children of the 80s still have a soft spot in their heart for Jim Terry’s Force Five, and where properties thought lost or abandoned are being reissued with alarming frequency, can it be merely a matter of time before our 1981 TV Guide dreams are reawakened, and Force Five returns to us in all its Mr. Angelo-dubbed glory? 

-Dave Merrill

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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Vengeance Of My Youth's Arcadia



Sure. Have a pummeled kid look up mid-thrashing, exclaim “Captain Harlock!” and let the audience figure out that guy from the wanted poster earlier, with the eyepatch and the skull-and-crossbones suit, that guy is probably a space pirate. That’s how Captain Harlock debuts in 1979’s Galaxy Express 999 film, a walking bit of iconography at home among the movie’s space trains and cosmic frontier towns.

Three years later, Captain Harlock would get his own feature film in Toei’s Arcadia Of My Youth. Appearing at the tail end of a space-opera fad, Arcadia puts Leiji Matsumoto’s most iconic character front and center, gambling his charisma is enough to carry a picture without advance public-relations buildup from any juvenile galaxy-train passengers. Here’s everything in one package, how Harlock became a cosmic corsair and where his space battleship Arcadia came from, in a film filled with romance, tragedy and conflict, and yet ultimately, weirdly, confusedly unsatisfying on first watch. At least, that’s how it was for me. 


 Sure, no movie’s gonna live up to the anticipation we had for Arcadia. “We,” of course, being the anime nerd crew I hung with in the early days of Reagan’s second administration. Warped by afternoon syndication of Star Blazers, we sniffed out Roman Albums and “Special Mooks” at local comic shops and comic cons. “Animation Comics” taught us about someone named Captain Harlock, his name regularly spelled out in English. Was he a space pirate? Looking like that, he’d better be.



We had definite Harlock expectations, mussed slightly by the whimsy of the nascent home video industry, which would bring us New World’s Galaxy Express dub with a renamed, celebrity-soundalike Harlock and the two ZIV International VHS releases of selected episodes of the 78 Harlock series. ZIV’s localizations, stonily accurate or wildly nonsensical, were bookended with a theme song that exhorted us to “Take to the sky!” And when Harmony Gold stitched that entire ‘78 series together with 1981’s Queen Millennia to create the “Captain Harlock And The Queen Of 1000 Years” teleseries, the retooling was an entirely different, comically inferior experience. Our gang wanted to see the REAL Captain Harlock, and to us that meant Arcadia Of My Youth, the film that shows us how Captain Harlock met spaceship engineer Tochiro Oyama and enigmatic female space-freebooter Emeraldas, and how they all became outlaws flying freely through the immensity of space.

By the time Celebrity Home Video released a package of edited, dubbed Japanese anime features that included Cyborg 009 Legend Of The Super Galaxy, Locke The Superman, and Arcadia Of My Youth as “Vengeance Of The Space Pirate,” our local crew had a few years of tape swapping and video-room programming under its belt. We’d seen the Macross movie and Project A-Ko and the rest of that period’s shiny, high-tech productions, filled with cute girls and expanding transformable robots. Might we have grown past Arcadia without even realizing it? But there Arcadia was, at a MRSP eight times the minimum hourly wage. Our dream movie was finally in our hands, sadly complete with lackluster dubbing and clumsy edits, one more piece of Bad American Dubbing, another obstacle on our path to True Arcadia Satisfaction.

Arcadia's previous American VHS releases


The 1990s rolled around and anime found itself embraced by a home video market hungry to fill Suncoast and Mediaplay shelves. That’s when pioneering American localizer AnimEigo released Arcadia Of My Youth, uncut and subtitled in English. Here it was, the full film without edits or bad dubbing, available at Blockbuster or at your local anime con. Here’s that Captain Harlock movie in the form you’ve been demanding, surely this satisfy your Harlock needs, right? This SHOULD be your favorite movie ever. And it... still wasn’t. Kind of a letdown. Was it too slow? Too long? Dependent upon a vast scope and a widescreen spectacle that 1990s VHS and tube televisions simply could not deliver? Maybe… maybe that last part.

Let’s skip a few decades, to when Discotek Media delivers a beautiful Blu-Ray of the film, matched with their release of Arcadia’s TV sequel Endless Orbit SSX. North American viewers- that’s me- could maybe, finally, mercifully get past that Celebrity hack’n’slash job and AnimEigo’s well-intended but slightly hazy release. This high-def version of Arcadia appeared on various streaming platforms, potentially into every internet-enabled home, at a point where North American anime culture has been prepped by English-language releases of the 1978 Harlock series, the Galaxy Express 999 films, and Leiji Matsumoto’s ‘70s Harlock manga. In other words, American audiences- again, that’s me- could watch Arcadia and be closer than ever to the film’s original context, freed from the murky expectations built up by fanzine synopses, Roman Albums, and fuzzy, badly dubbed VHS. How does this Arcadia feel now? Short answer: this movie finally works.

Let’s start with the film’s title itself. The legitimacy of a claimed a Goethe quote is largely dependent upon there being very little crossover between Goethe fans and anime nerds. More prosaically, Arcadia Of My Youth recalls “Marianne Of My Youth,” a 1955 French/German film starring Horst “the German James Dean” Buchholz as a Bavarian boarding school student who falls in love with a mysterious girl played by Heimatfilm star Marianne Hold. Hold would inspire Leiji Matsumoto’s Maetel, as well as songs by Japanese avant-garde rockers Jacks and power balladeers THE ALFEE.

Arcadia the film avoids Harlock’s previous anime iterations, instead building out from two of Leiji Matsumoto’s mid-1970s “Battlefield Manga” stories. The job of bringing all this into the thirtieth century fell to Arcadia screenplay author Yooichi Onaka, who seems to have done a little TV writing and two Arcadia novelizations. Battlefield’s “Stanley’s Witch” becomes the basis for Arcadia’s pre-credits scene starring our hero’s early 20th century ancestor Phantom F. Harlock, voiced here in his final role by actor Yujiro Ishihara, brother of ultranationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. Flying his “Arcadia” tagged biplane, Phantom F. pits his life against the challenge of crossing the Owen Stanley mountains in New Guinea, unwilling to give up his dream even if it costs him everything.

As Arcadia Of My Youth’s credits roll we find ourselves back to the future, where Pacific War comparisons move from subtext to text as our home planet surrenders to hegemonic galaxy invaders the Illumidas, whose greenish skintone splits the difference between that of Yamato enemies Gamilas and the Comet Empire. Any comparisons between the Illumidas occupation of Earth and the American occupation of Japan are purely coincidental on purpose, you understand.

Amidst Earth’s collapse, Solar Federation captain Harlock tries and fails to run the alien-invasion blockade and is forced back to Earth with a cargo of refugee passengers. His command and career are kaput, and he can’t even hang out with his willowy blonde girlfriend Maya because she’s deep undercover DJ’ing clandestine Earth resistance radio. There’s nothing for Harlock but to join the rest of the hungry Earthman masses struggling to find a meal in the ruins. This is where he meets fellow former Federation officer, genius engineer and future best friend Tochiro Oyama, during a silly bar fight that supplies most of the film’s comic relief.

The Illumidas policy is to recruit conquered citizens and exploit them for police-state grunt work. This means there aren’t any hard feelings when officer Zoll of defeated planet Tokarga arrests our heroes and Illumidas brain-machines investigate both their genetic structures; Zoll is just following orders. This brings us to our second “Battlefield” excerpt, a lengthy memory-flashback starring Harlock and Tochiro’s ancestors, who met each other during WWII in an attempt to flee to an episode of Heidi, Girl Of The Alps (Zuiyo Eizo, 1974). Back in the 30th century, we find the conquered Earth military is managed by sneering traitor Triter. Earth’s forces are offered a devil’s bargain of preferential treatment if they will prove their loyalty to Illumidas by crushing previous Illumidas subjects the Tokargans. Will Harlock captain that mission? He will not. He’s got his pride, and anyway, he’s got to stick around Earth for the sake of Maya’s radio career.

Maya’s morale-lifting broadcasts are ostensibly for all Earth, but get real; she’s passively-aggressively speaking just to Harlock. Before the two wise up and start talking privately, the Illumidas Communications Commission raids her broadcast studio. Harlock gets caught in the crossfire and well, let’s just say the film has leveled-up in its quest to show us Harlock’s origin.

Confiding in his newly one-eyed bestie, Tochiro reveals he’s secretly built a giant space battleship. Would Harlock like to be its captain so they can ditch this square world and blast off for kicksville? Boy, would he. But first Tochiro finds himself entranced by recent arrival Emeraldas, the free space trader whose giant spaceship has been damaged trying to make it through the Flame Stream Prominence, a dangerous stellar phenomenon dubbed the “Owen Stanley Witch Of Space.” I wonder if our heroes will challenge it later?

This assemblage of main characters is interrupted by La Miimay- not the blue-haired Miimay from the ‘78 show, but an incredible blonde simulation- who’s overheard big news during her secretarial job in Illumidas HQ. The command’s going out to demolish Tokarga. The entire planet is condemned.

Zoll and the Tokargans want to commandeer Tochiro’s spaceship and return to protect their home, but Tochiro knows you shouldn’t loan money, books, VHS tapes, or starships. Instead, Tochiro and Harlock will fly to Tokarga while Zoll and Earth resistance fighters do what they can to protect the Earth. That means we’re about an hour into the film before we finally meet our real star, the Arcadia. Erupting from its underground cavern helpfully built beneath what used to be the Solar Federation’s headquarters, we’re both amazed at the impressive scenario and curious as to how Tochiro intended to launch this thing if the bad guys hadn’t conquered the Earth.

Rescued from an Illumidas firing squad, Emeraldas receives her iconic scar (check another box, film) and Maya is also wounded, earning the full-on “Love Story” treatment, becoming more beautifully radiant the sicker she gets.

Arcadia the film sends Arcadia the ship through outer space and to a ruined Tokarga, now inhabited by corpses and Illumidas death-robots, overdue for annihilation. Rescuing a few stricken survivors and Harlock standby Mr. Bird, the Arcadia must challenge the Flame Stream Prominence to return to Earth, defying the peculiar life-energy attraction force these stars generate. Sure, that’s a strange quality to develop in a celestial object that by its very nature is inimical to all forms of life in the first place, but before we can question yet another illogical thing in this space pirate origin movie, a heroic sacrifice gets our heroes through this crisis. 

Harlock and the Arcadia return to Earth to mourn their dead, and right away blast off again for the film’s climactic final battle, where Arcadia comes closest to its thematic template– not the WWII-In-Outer-Space of Yamato, but the Hollywood pirate flicks of the 1930s and 1940s, in which enormous Age Of Sail ships of the line would blast broadsides at each other, until eventually our hero, a once-respected noble forced into piracy by cruel happenstance, would swing over the rigging and duel the enemy hand to hand. That’s how Arcadia Of My Youth ends, half an hour of whooshing space noises and staccato commands, laser blasts, gravity-warping explosions and swashbuckling extravehicular boarding, culminating in a cosmic burial-at-sea and a Captain Harlock finally fully equipped with goth fashion, iconic spaceship, and a helpful supporting cast, prepared at last to roam freely through the expanses of space, fine, nobody’s stopping you, go do it already.

Fandom writing about Harlock and AOMY from the 80s

Rising above Arcadia’s 130 minute haze is the character design and animation direction by the great Kazuo Komatsubara, the man behind the ‘78 Harlock series and a ton of other successes from super robots to magical girls. However, here K. Kazuo’s work isn’t lively enough to offset the film’s overwhelming lassitude. The direction by Tomoharu Katsumata is competent enough, with rare moments of quiet beauty, but he’s content to film great chunks of action in long shots, to frame gigantic space battleships in the middle distance without giving us a sense of size or mass, to pan across still shots of characters standing still. Compared to the nervous, organic motion of Rintaro’s Galaxy Express or to his reality-warping, electronic-music-soundtracked sequel Adieu, Arcadia’s risk-averse cinematography seems even tamer. The same year as Arcadia Katsumata also lensed the less-than-sizzling feature Future War 198X, and in 1985 he’d helm the legendarily tiresome Odin: Photon Sailer Starlight, another outer space non-actioner. Like an expensive sports car minus an engine, Arcadia Of My Youth doesn’t really go anywhere fast, but looks great doing it. 

My Ruler In Arcadia

It’s certainly not the film we were promised in the trailer, which in the best Hollywood tradition is made up largely of footage not seen in the actual film. The preview delivers spectacular spine-jarring footage of the Arcadia blasting its main cannons, shock obliterating the frame for seconds, smoke and dust and cosmic detritus swirling in the vacuum of space, whoops, this is footage lifted clean from 1979’s Galaxy Express. We see Harlock’s pal Zoll of Tokarga put a burst of unfriendly cosmo-gun energy right into Harlock’s eye, absolutely not how the film goes. The trailer’s soundtrack leans heavily on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which can’t help but make the actual Arcadia’s Toshiyuki “Golgo 13: The Professional” Kimori soundtrack seem less than memorable and kind of a bait and switch on both the audience and Kimori.

As Arcadia Of My Youth ends with a purported Goethe quote, we’re left with more questions than are answered. Who are the Illumidas? Should their name actually be spelled “Ilumidus”? Why did they conquer Earth in the first place? Why bother conquering Tokarga years before, only to blow it up? If a film deliberately evokes the American occupation of Japan, can we speculate here that maybe the Earth deserved it? Did the Solar Federation’s astro-political mouth write some checks the Solar Federation’s astro-political ass couldn’t cash? How did Tochiro excavate a giant cavern, equip it with machinery, and construct a giant space battleship all by himself? What, exactly, is the relationship between Harlock and Maya? Are they brother and sister, are they dating, are they both, like in that Folger’s ad? Maybe he’s just an obsessed stalker, which would explain why she runs from him at one point. If they are actually a romantic couple, Arcadia needed to show us the pair walking in a meadow, laughing in slow motion, or shopping at Ikea. Any relationship signifier would do. A 130 minute film can give us Date Night Harlock along with Air Pioneer Harlock and Luftwaffe Ace Harlock. Except it can’t, because outside of the cockpit of an airplane or the bridge of a warship, Harlock doesn’t really exist. He doesn’t grow or change, there’s no Harlock character arc, he wasn’t turned into a grim specter of vengeance by outlaw bikers or sneering thugs or The System, Man, he was broody and stoic before this movie and he’ll be broody and stoic after it’s over, because being an eternal archetype means never having to evolve as a character.

That being said, I’ll admit I’m not being fair to Arcadia. This movie was released in 1982 to a Japanese audience that had already absorbed 42 episodes of a Captain Harlock TV series, two Galaxy Express films and a TV series featuring Harlock as a supporting character. The Japanese crowds watching AOMY didn’t NEED to know who Harlock was, or why, where and when, or convincing rationales for invading aliens and their whimsical planet-exploding foreign policies. They accept the film and its heroes for what they are; archetypes moving on a fixed course, past the background scenery of galactic empires, through narratives as unchangeable as any samurai epic, rubber-suit kaiju eiga, or gangster thriller. This is a film about a space pirate with a skull-festooned space battleship, created by Leiji Matsumoto, who’s made a career out of nostalgia-infused, iconic-character science fiction. Adjust expectations accordingly.

My dissatisfaction with the “Vengeance” release is not as qualified. The dub is mediocre; villains attempt bluster or smarm, heroes are quietly heroic, and some voice work, especially that of Maya, is awkward and stilted, hardly the diction of a supposed radio pro. Objectionable material is cut without regard to continuity or soundtrack. Entire scenes are missing, including the flashback opening sequence, leading to a print thirty minutes short. While I do think that Arcadia could do with a bit of trimming, this is clearly too much, and the Just For Kids box art depicting a not-appearing-in-this-film scene from the trailer merely confuses. AnimEigo’s release is of course superior. However, here in the 21st century the Discotek version is the one to watch and perhaps radically change opinions about Arcadia, featuring a big-screen hi-def image and an uncut “Vengeance” dub along with the original Japanese audio.

Arcadia humor comics in Animec Rapport Deluxe 6

I’ve spent a few decades trying to honestly assess Arcadia, trying to force my one-track brain away from teenage nerd expectations. Years of speculation, countless screenings of a trailer and two contemporaneous, arguably superior films starring essentially the same characters all have their thumb on the scales. However, regardless of presentation or context, Arcadia defies casual dismissal; if the test of a truly superior fictional character is his ability to transcend merely average material, Harlock passes with flying skull-and-crossbones colors. It’s obvious there’s a big difference between fuzzy VHS and the high-def home video of today, and in the case of Arcadia the differences are bold. Quieter scenes are filled with detail lost in tape-to-tape-to-tape transfers, and more subtly animated shots work as they were intended, rather than blurred out of existence. Viewers such as myself who might have last watched the movie on somebody’s living room tube TV back in the ‘90s might need their opinions recalibrated upwards, especially considering how Arcadia’s themes of holding on to principles in the face of sacrifice and failure seem to hold a lot more power after life has knocked you around for a few decades.

"Arcadia" comic by Dave Mitchell

Sadly, we can’t go back in time and tell ourselves to wait for the maturity that only years can bring, or even for the invention of better home video. What remains is the realization that perhaps Arcadia Of My Youth’s tagline needs updating – to paraphrase a paraphrased Goethe quote, at the end, men realize what their youth’s Arcadia needed was simply some solid Matsumoverse context and a Blu-Ray upgrade.

-Dave Merrill

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