Back in the days when this was all so much harder to find and there was so much less of it out there, the 1982 feature film Arcadia of My Youth was my first real introduction to the world of Captain Harlock and the Matsumoto universe. I only had access to this and not any of the TV works and it was unlike pretty much anything else that I was getting to see at the time in the early 90s, a decade after the film had come out. Directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, the screenplay was by Yoichi Onaka and is based on the story by the legendary Leiji Matsumoto. I’ve gone on to many other works of his over the years with all the variations and re-imaginings and have really grown to love his style and design work. But there’s something magical about this film with the way it blends into a lot of the post-war feelings from those who had grown up in that period and brought so many of those influences and ideas into these animated works. From an American viewpoint, where the vast majority of animation was just Saturday Morning fair, early exposure to something like this was like a shock to the system.
And a lot of that is because of the pacing of the film in addition to its themes. We’re introduced to a very compelling project but one that embraces the small moments and the mood of things rather than just trying to go for big sweeping action sequences. And even that was a contrast to most of the anime coming out domestically at the time as that was loud and fast and quite pretty. Here, Arcadia took its time, spoke its inner monologue at its own pace, and examined what makes a man a man in the context of this time and place. Arcadia is a movie that screams maleness but not in such a way that it degenerates or disrespects women, but rather takes a look at what makes a man a man at a time when people such as Matsumoto had grown up watching the unconquerable heroes of westerns and samurais across the film and TV worlds. The cardboard heroes that would stride up and save the day.
Matsumoto went in the opposite direction with Harlock. A good deal of the premise has to do with parallels to Japan after World War II as we’re shown the Earth as being ruled by the Illumidus Empire – a cold and almost barren place where humanity is clinging to whatever scraps it can get. The Illumidus military rules handily here and through much of known space at this time, even to the point where previous conquests have been incorporated into their ranks and are used in the occupation of Earth. It’s to this devastating reality that Harlock returns home in his battle cruiser filled with refugees.
His return is not welcomed by the general populace. Most of those who are willing to say it will place the blame on these vaunted commanders of the spaceways as the reason their planet is in ruins and overrun by the aliens. The highly skilled warriors that were supposed to protect them have failed and the populace will take whatever it can to feel better about itself. The humans who have collaborated with the Illumidus are the worst though, as they advocate the outright execution of people such as Harlock so as to avoid future problems with them.
Earth isn’t completely given over to the Illumidus though, as there continues to be the Voice of Free Earth, a mysterious feminine voice who talks about the pride of humanity and where they can be if they don’t give up. This broadcast continues to be a significant thorn in the side of the Illumidus but also provides hope for Harlock and those likeminded that they’re not entirely alone in wanting to resist the occupation. When Harlock ends up coming across Tochiro, a fellow military man himself but more focused on the engineering side of the world, they end up taking his hidden cruiser back into orbit.
Playing parallel to this, and indeed taking up a significant amount of screen time, are reflections on the past, to a time long before space adventures were really dreamed of. We’re introduced to an ancestor of Harlock’s whose life was built on overcoming the challenges around him, particularly in dealing with crossing over a mountain range in his plane, back when such challenges were abundant in the world and their conquest meant something is how it’s framed. There’s also a more recent ancestor to Harlock we meet flying planes in combat for Germany that ends up running out of fuel and landing in the hills where he meets a caravan that an ancestor of Tochiro was part of. The two have their first true link here and their destinies become intertwined as we see in the future aboard Tochiro’s battle cruiser. The two men and the long-valued eye scope from the era of planes become a key part of the storyline as it progresses. Watching the parallels in the adventures, particularly the unconquerable pass, is just one of a number of parallels in the film.
While Harlock generally comes off as a brooding and introspective man in the various shows that have come out in recent years, none have cast him as darkly and single-minded as he is here. His beliefs carry him throughout the film and even as wrong after wrong is committed around him, he never wavers in it. Loved ones are lost and an entire planet is ready to be rendered non-existent, but it doesn’t stop him from believing in what must be done and that he can do it. There are no whiny moments of thinking that they’re doomed or fatalistic times of giving up – to men like Harlock and Tochiro, there is always a way to turn everything into victory no matter the cost. With the inner monologues we hear throughout combined with the observations of the women they know and the men that are their enemies, Harlock is defined in the simplest and purest of terms. And it’s truly why the character is envied and idolized among boys and men, to believe that they can be filled with that kind of inner strength.
There’s a lot of symbolism that’s overt and hidden throughout the film and it plays on several layers. Matsumoto’s ways of manipulating his various universes and timelines take a back seat here as you simply watch and enjoy the story as it unfolds. The painful moments are plentiful but well done, those times are often given over to a mix of sadness and beauty. Harlock’s own painful moments are plain and he doesn’t hide them, yet another piece that set him apart from the time and place he comes from. The film has had a long-lasting effect on me since I first saw it and it’s one that’s worth re-evaluating over the years. Seeing how it defines a certain kind of thinking from that time. It’s limited in what it can do within the time that it has and just how much it can say, but it’s something that really stands out in that it does present such a distinct voice. The visuals of Harlock going against the Stanley Mountain Witch and his rickety craft as he explains things in his mind have been seared into my mind. This is a film of poetic beauty that reaches deep inside and continues to find a welcome home with each new evaluation of it as how we interact with art should be constantly changing as we change.