From the Western World to the Land of the Rising Sun, Star Wars ushered in a collective cultural love of space fantasy. But it was arguably Leiji Matsumoto who popularised the look and feel of action orientated sci-fi in the Japanese consciousness with Space Battleship Yamato, Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. It’s no exaggeration to say that Takehiko Ito’s Outlaw Star manga is indebted to Matsumoto and yet, like the concept of space fantasy itself, it’s about much more than flashy battles and the hero’s journey.
The manga, which takes place in the same universe as Ito’s Space Hero Tales, retains the pulp sci-fi feel and splices it with the grandiose trappings of space opera. It focuses on the handyman agency of Starwind and Hawking – they’ll fix everything “from tractors to relationships” – made up of the roguish Gene Starwind, a study in masculinity, and eleven-year-old wunderkind James “Jim” Hawking. Jim’s the son of a renowned hacker, always armed with a computer and keeping an eye on profitable info. If Gene is the muscle of the operation, then Jim is just about everything else.
Gene might be a “space cherry” cosmophobe, but he dreams of being an Outlaw, one of three galactic powers along with pirates and the Space Forces. Circumstance pays off in spades when the duo take otherwise innocuous jobs as bodyguards that cross their paths with pirates. They wind up the owners of the most technologically advanced grappler ship in the galaxy, the XGP15A-II. You’ll never guess what they name it.
But the pirates are also after a case, inside which is the bio-android Melfina. If her reveal seems familiar, it’s because the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a comparison that causes contention for both fan bases. Melfina is effectively the ship’s processing unit, integrating into its system – something she has to be naked for, apparently. The ship’s purpose is to find the Galactic Leyline, a precious treasure big enough to buy an entire solar system. The crew, completed by the assassin “Twilight” Suzuka and Aisha Clan-Clan, a former officer of the Ctarl-Ctarl Empire, are charged with finding the leyline, are drawn there for a climactic showdown.
The anime is right at home at studio Sunrise, rubbing shoulders with the Gundam franchise, The Vision of Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop, the latter inevitably drawing comparisons whenever Outlaw Star is mentioned. There are similarities, i.e. bounty hunters in space, but where Bebop opts for the episodic situation-of-the-week format, Outlaw Star is more serialised. It has a few detours, be it the strongest woman in the universe competition, or the obligatory hot springs outing, but they all serve the wider arc in one capacity or another. The most apt comparison is the music. Outlaw Star opens with a bouncy, brass-heavy rock anthem that simultaneously sounds current yet cut from the nineties.
If the soundtrack holds up almost two decades later, then the animation certainly doesn’t. Even when it aired, Outlaw Star looked hurried, lacklustre and cheap. Its character models are chaotically drawn, outlines a sketchy shamble like the illustrations in a kid’s colouring book. Look past the stilted, Spartan characters and excessive use of static frames, and the environments really shine. The backdrop of planets and starscapes or intricate industrial cities show off a series that can more than hold its own against its contemporaries. Where it truly excels, though, is the space battles, which manage to be kinetic despite the fluctuating quality.
The ship of any sci-fi show worth its stars is as much a character as the crew that inhabit it, and the eponymous Outlaw Star is no different with Gilliam, its neurotic AI, that sounds like 2001’s HAL 9000 depending on which dub you’re watching. The show is made more cartoony in the English dub, except for the gravely tones of John Snyder and the peppy Lenore Zann (Rogue in the classic animated X-Men) as Aisha.
Outlaw Star is a show of halves. Its paltry animation is balanced with a loveable ragtag of characters, while a one-dimensional villain is weighed up against the rest of the compelling 24-episode arc. The biggest trade off, though, is that this superb space opera has largely been forgotten. Isn’t it about time we set that right?
Extras: English dub; pilot film; text free opening/ closing; character design galleries; commercials.