It has been a long time since I watched any Captain Harlock media, but the recent announcement of Super Robot Wars T, featuring Harlock SSX: My Youth in Arcadia, drove me to give the series another go. I love its aesthetic, and it is iconic enough to be notably parodied in various things (perhaps most broadly by the latter half of Goldran featuring Walter disguised as a bad parody of Harlock piloting a giant robot shark), but I did not recall particularly gelling with the original series, dated as it is, when I first watched it.
Nevertheless I have been wrong about things from first impressions in the past, and so I began watching SSX. It is not a glamorous series, it is quite a slow series that on the surface seems to go through quite common stock plots of its genre – but it is possessed of a lot of conviction and, I would say, a righteous, fascinating anger about a common space opera trope. The story feels extremely reminiscent of Space Battleship Yamato, but from a completely thematically inverse, and much more bleak as a result, position. Humanity has explored the stars, colonised the stars, and drawn the attention of a dangerous enemy, the Illuminas; they are now the colonised, not the coloniser, and only a good-hearted outlaw can provide meaningful resistance.
Failed heroes, or would-be heroes, are front and centre here; the first three episodes offer Tadashi, the orphan who believes the way to survive is to pursue the bounty on the man who ultimately offers the best hope of improving his lot, Leotard, a former navy officer turned informant who realises too late the nature of her betrayal and kills herself to atone and the captain of the Deathshadow, a former associate of Harlock, now traitor, who knows his every weakness.
Three for three in stories of people reduced to treachery and backstabbing former friends because they did not resist the coloniser. This is very clearly a series making, and reinforcing, the point that it is extremely easy to take the easy route and become a collaborator, that the routes to this moral failure come from so many directions (poverty, the desire to keep some kind of honour, even simply fear) but that is is nevertheless a moral failure.
After all, Harlock is presented as a messianic figure, the most wanted man in the universe because he resists humanity’s surrender to the unstoppable coloniser. People worship him; this is made abundantly clear. The oppressed live hoping to be visited by the Arcadia, children grow up wanting to join his crusade. SSX is an incredibly angry story about the need for resistance to occupation.
And it does this without having many recurring villains set up in its opening stories; there is no charismatic overlord of the Illuminas to directly rage against. Harlock is not set in direct opposition to the ruler of an entire empire, his rival so far is the probably more awful Mr Zone. Mr Zone is a collaborator and informant par excellence, a human who has decided to throw his lot in so deeply with the Illuminas to save his own hide he takes on the mission to destroy Harlock personally. This was a narrative decision the enormity of which took a little while to settle in because I was still trying to see what SSX was doing that stood out at the time, looking too hard for some big dramatic genre thing that would make it a really good bit of all-action space opera.
But once it did settle in, I realised it was extremely good and the absolute tonal and thematic inversion of Yamato, which it seemed superficially similar to. Yamato is about humanity vowing never to surrender, taking a horrific, sustained attack and telling the invader “Not one step more.” It is about one ship setting off to save Earth, to destroy evil and to ultimately learn a moral lesson about winning without using superweapons to do so. Humanity as a whole stand together to the last man, the last ship, the last bullet. The Yamato represents a united resistance to Gamilas. And thus its enemy needs to be the embodiment of the invader, the arch-dictator, the war leader and politician who stands ideologically opposed to goodness. It is a stirring story of the value of bravery and resistance and the indefatigable spirit of man.
Harlock, by contrast, is an outlaw. The time for last stands has passed, and rather than humanity fighting to the end, resisting even without hope, much of it has given up. The best option seems to be a quiet life helping the resistance as needed but mostly making do. The most common option seems to be active subservience. Humanity has failed and the first three episodes are a litany of how badly. There is not united resistance, there is not even much resistance at all; there is Harlock and Emereldas, two ships against a – crucially – faceless coloniser. Illuminas cannot be defeated by destroying a flagship, by destroying the oppressor. This is not a story about taking the war and turning defeat into victory. Harlock’s goal is finding Arcadia, a mythical paradise where apparently different nations, cultures and peoples can find peace, presumably as equals. Mere coexistence without colonisation is the only reasonable endpoint from a universe torn apart by imperial ambitions.
And so the fitting villain here to introduce from the start is not a grand overlord (even if one may emerge in time, as the scope of the story expands) but a coward, a pathetic turncoat who saves his own hide by vowing to crush resistance to occupation. Zone turns rapidly from beaten underling to mastermind – and marshals under him a whole list of failed heroes who have turned, for whatever reason, to helping Illuminas.
There is an extremely good quote about this series’ attitude to collaborators in episode 2. After Leotard kills herself, the narrator offers this moral: “Lady Captain Leotard… She was a women who died as a soldier. Harlock knew that from the time she lost her own flag, and raised the flag of Illuminas, her spirit was already dead.” There is no stance from which raising arms against your countrymen and comrades is acceptable. There is no rationalisation that maintains any kind of personal honour. Trying to hurt your countrymen is, ultimately, a crime beyond crimes.
And this is episode 2. Episode 3 restates the moral perhaps even more strongly; Harlock must once again take up arms against a former comrade turned collaborator, and this time the appeal to morality finally works. The Deathshadow’s captain is convinced to hold fire by his long-lost daughter, and he agrees to allow a release of prisoners and to let the Arcadia go. But at the end of the day while he may be a noble rival, he leaves the battlefield vowing another fight is inevitable. He will still fight against his countrymen. And so, his spirit may well be dead or dying.
Look past the quaint archaisms of science fiction language in SSX, look past the relative lack of flashy action for a series promising space battleships and swordfights, and you will find a series that burns with contempt for traitors, that burns with respect for those who resist and fight. It posits, arguably, a different endpoint for how Yamato opens; rather than uniting behind one ship to resist to the last, mankind surrenders and demonises the people who would propose such heroism. It took me perhaps too long to work out this aspect of the series, which is made all the more ridiculous with how unsubtle and explicit it is in its message. But I approached stories like Leotard’s, or the Deathshadow’s, from the perspective of preconceptions about noble villains with second thoughts at the end, villains who come round to the hero’s viewpoint. I hadn’t made the leap that these were villains who only came to their villainy because they had turned their backs on resistance and chosen what the series called the easy, compromised route.