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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