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Arcadia of My Youth
For an old-school anime buff, the melodrama and larger-than-life characters are like old friends
Arcadia of My Youth
AnimEigo
Directed by Tomoharu Katsumata
Japan, 1982
Captain Harlock, created by Leiji Matsumoto, is one of the icons of Japanese animation. The vast amounts of windswept hair that cover his ruined eye; his seeming inability to smile; his dignity, honour and bravery, which are such that US Marines are like mewling babes next to him. Standing under the Jolly Roger of his spacecraft, the Arcadia, he leads his crew in the battle to free Earth from the shackles of oppression under the alien Illumidus.

In the past, Harlock has enjoyed plenty of exposure in North America, with mixed results. Canadians got the best treatment, with a fairly accurate French translation of the series as Albator. Americans had the dubious pleasure of getting two Matsumoto series (Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia) sliced up, mixed together and simmered to create Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years. Finally, several of Harlock's adventures had been released on home video, including his cameo (as "Captain Warlock") in an early English adaptation of Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999. In recent years, Robert Gibson and Ben Dunn have released a comic adaptation of Captain Harlock on the Antarctic Press imprint.

In my younger days, I watched Albator whenever I could, until the call of adolescence made me rethink my daily afternoon priorities. Putting the Arcadia of My Youth movie into the VCR was much like inviting an old friend to dinner.

Unfortunately, Arcadia of My Youth was also much like discovering that what was once a friend's endearing dialogue has become slightly irritating chatter. Harlock has not aged well; I now react with amused tolerance towards some scenes which I thought were awe-inspiring twelve years ago. Objectively, Arcadia of My Youth has a story structure which is rambling at best. But nostalgia reared its head: Matsumoto could do no wrong.

Arcadia of My Youth gives us the whole legend of Captain Harlock, from the very beginning: we meet Phantom F. Harlock--our hero's grandfather--in the 1910s, and learn the importance of Arcadia to the Harlock family. Fast-forward to the indeterminate future: the Illumidus have taken over the Earth, and mankind lives under their heel. Captain Harlock has returned to Earth. In a confusing jumble of events, he meets the diminutive Tochiro, falls in with the Rose (a rebel who broadcasts messages of hope via a pirate radio station), loses an eye, gains a scar, and takes to space in Tochiro's specially-constructed ship, christened Arcadia. Adventure ensues.

An assortment of interesting and sometimes hyperbolic characters populate this movie: Tochiro, mechanical genius; La Mime, sole survivor of her race, ethereally creepy with her long, flowing tresses (most Matsumoto women are tall and have long, flowing tresses), pupilless eyes, and lack of a mouth; Emeraldas, the free trader who joins Harlock with her ship, Queen Emeraldas; Zeda, commander of the Illumidus occupation forces, who has more honour and nobility than most alien invaders.

There's a lot that can be done with such characters, and Matsumoto plays them up reasonably well. However, they can be just a little too intense. Melodrama is the order of the day, as people valiantly lay down their lives for one another, burst into tears, or engage in overly dramatic space battles.

Arcadia of My Youth leaves me with mixed feelings; there are many good ideas in here, but the story structure and pacing could have used some more work. The pacing usually works, oddly enough--I barely felt the 130 minutes go by--but there were times when I gazed at the screen in bewilderment, wondering what had just happened. Ultimately, Arcadia of My Youth seems to work best for Harlock fans, who may be willing to forgive the film's flaws, as I did.

Originally appeared in Parsec vol. 1, no. 4 (February/March 1996)