The second in this series of short looks at interesting things found during 2012 focuses on what, for most of its run, was a very retro styled science-fiction series undone at the conclusion by a move into the modern day’s genre traditions that was thematically fitting but rather poorly executed. The series was Moretsu Space Pirates, which from its opening titles looked to offer exciting space warfare and high adventure, a more action-packed homage to the classic space opera anime of Matsumoto Leiji.
The truth of it was that for around three-quarters of its length, Moretsu Pirates was a very slow-paced and comparatively “hard science” SF series about futuristic societies and a setting so far in the future that space warfare was basically obsolete. Its essential premise was that in its setting’s past, space pirates and privateers had been mercenary armies used to fight battles between great space empires, yet once the war was over there was nothing for them to do and so their ships sat largely unused in dry docks save for token acts of piracy to maintain the pretence of being a fighting force, and the letters of marque were passed from generation to generation. It centred around the character of Marika, heir to a pirate legacy but still a schoolgirl who thus had to keep up her family’s image of being renowned pirates lest the dynasty collapse. Immediately then, the series defied expectations; for the first three or four episodes it focused almost entirely on Marika’s home life and her gradual realisation that her family were renowned pirates in their day.
Even after she takes her rightful place as captain of the Bentenmaru, her family’s antique warship, Marika is not the swashbuckling pirate the series has hinted at; it becomes clear that pirates in this setting now do very little piracy at all and what space combat there is is a cat-and-mouse game of submarine warfare fought as much with computer viruses and instrument-panels as boarding actions and broadsides. This absolute change in tone from the space opera genre’s staples – foreshadowed from the start in the Bentenmaru’s aesthetics being clearly reminiscent of Captain Harlock’s Arcadia or the Space Battleship Yamato itself – was highly divisive. Viewers found the series too slow and intimate to keep their attention and the big plot reveal – that what “piracy” remained in the setting was essentially interactive entertainment for decadent nobility who would be “raided” by pirates and then compensated by the shipping company (who had hired the pirates in the first place) – was for many the final straw. Yet sticking with the series was rewarding; it explored in a very relatable way through the traditions of school anime the idea of a science-fiction utopia where once the galaxy-shaping wars were over, all that remained was boredom. Space was now a playground for the characters and so when real danger did appear – damsels in arranged marriages apparently needing saving or corrupt officials needing exposing – it was effectively a triviality.
Indeed, the arc of the plot focusing on Marika’s attempts to “save” another character from an arranged marriage epitomises how Moretsu Pirates depicts its future; the young woman in question does as much to save herself as Marika and her crew do to discredit her fiance. Similarly, a plot arc which appears to set up a massive conflict involving one of the larger factions resolves itself peacefully as Marika solves the mystery of a derelict treasure ship and in so doing also ties up all the other narrative threads. These short, self-contained adventures which at all times reject the space opera conventions they visually evoke all served to set up the area of space where the action took place as a happy utopia free from any real conflict where even succession crises and royal disputes could be solved by a few schoolchildren sitting down for tea. It was effectively a science-fiction equivalent to the halcyon Enid Blyton past where children could do as they liked and have their own adventures which neatly resolved themselves.
The final arc was arguably supposed to represent this complacent utopia being shattered by the arrival of a new war, brought on by a new faction who saw these happy-go-lucky and past-their-prime pirates as an insult to the traditions of space warfare. An experimental battleship arrived on the scene using pirates as prey for combat tests, and the arc focused on Marika bringing back together all the pirate captains and fighting it off with traditional tactics and skill. However, in terms of execution it did not work; the shift into a traditional space opera narrative of prototypes and revolutionary strategies after a plot arc focused around cheating in a sailing race was too sudden and in opening the setting so far up the return to the happy status quo at the end of it all seemed too convenient. It was made clear that the setting was still one small part of a more turbulent universe and that the complacent utopia of child pirates and princesses stopping over for tea was if anything the laughing-stock of more militaristic fleets – and with the illusion so completely shattered right down to the quite specific and atypical combat shown earlier in the series, the series ended on a less than hopeful note.
Conceptually this ending, showing a kind of end to the childish idyll that Marika had embodied, was a good one; to move from Famous Five-esque bumbling in space to the need to become a “proper” pirate, in line with graduating from school, could well have summed up the series’ entire theme of growing up and enjoying childhood while it lasts. Yet the execution was ultimately clumsy and the very concept of a traditional space-opera fleet battle for a final fight – rather than a last hurrah of Marika’s childish ingenuity – seemed to rush this development of the setting in a way that felt too much like a setup for a sequel than a proper conclusion.