Arcadia of My Youth
Review by Daniel Huddleston:
I've always found it striking how this movie seemed to be deplored by critics, yet deemed brilliant by fans. I can kinda see both viewpoints-- on the one hand there are some very obvious flaws, but on the other hand, this is the type of story that makes me want to overlook the problems.
Harlock, captain of a military spaceship, finds himself jobless after Earth loses a war with the alien Illumidas Empire. After returning to earth with a ship full of refugees, he soon sees that cooperation is the watchword among those defeated by Illumidas-- Harlock is discharged from his captaincy by a Tokargan soldier named Zoll, and the cowardly Minister Triter warns the Illumidas that Harlock is a dangerous man. Surrounded by traitors, Harlock begins to search for Maya, an old flame who's now running an underground radio operation, offering words of defiance and encouragement to the defeated masses of humanity. The aliens are also looking for Maya (for obvious reasons), and Harlock attempts to reach her first. The attempt costs him his right eye and nearly gets him killed.
Harlock has also made friends with a man named Tochiro, another ex-soldier of similar ranking. Together they roam the destroyed city until they are captured by the aliens for an experiment in racial/genetic memory. During the experiment, Harlock and Tochiro learn that their ancestors met 1,000 years ago, near the Swiss border during World War II (this flashback, and one other, will come full circle in some interesting ways later on). While all this is going on, word has leaked out that the Illumidas have finished with Tokarga and plan to send human volunteers to annihilate the planet. Harlock asks a space trader for permission to steal her ship, so he can go save the Tokargans. But Zoll, who has also heard the news regarding his homeworld, arrives with plans of his own, and a strong bond of friendship is formed between the defeated soldiers. At just this moment, Tochiro reveals a secret that will probably leave you either cheering, laughing, or if you're like me, just accepting it for the sake of the story.
The story is told in a poetic, operatic style, with wall-to-wall tragedy and sadness. There is much talk of youth, of manhood, and of ideals, often expressed in flowery, poetic language (it's tempting to gag on it, if you're not thinking about what's being said).
But one thing that struck me was that it was good to see such an unashamed celebration of masculinity in film. Not action movie masculinity, with bulging muscles and blazing guns, but masculine traits that speak to us from an older, nobler time-- faithfulness to love, disdain for cowardice, trueness to ideals, payment of debts, and the honoring of the honorable--even if he happens to be your enemy. Plus a good measure of testosterone-induced pig-headedness. These things are so often laughed at-- and some will find this film corny beyond belief-- that it seems we define masculinity as either a pathetic, comically deluded mindset, or simply as the ability to kill. This story recalls an age when men were men, and that was okay.
Animation quality wavers a bit. There are some very nice moments of character animation, but there are also some pretty amateurish shots of the spacecraft. The story springs from the mind of Leiji Matsumoto (Yamato/Starblazers, Galaxy Express 999), and the designs naturally reflect his goofy-yet-oddly-elegant artistic sensibilities. The sad, majestic orchestral score is truly beautiful.
As far as objectionable content goes, the violence level is pretty high. Ray guns scar faces and burn holes through bodies. Noble, likable characters meet horrible, often self-sacrificial deaths. For example: at one point, Harlock's vessel is being drawn into a solar flare that somehow attracts living energy. Alien crewmen have just watched the last female of their race die, so to save the ship from being pulled into the star, they cast themselves into space en masse. The subtitles contain some cursing (B*****D, S**T, etc), but no nudity or sex. There are a couple scenes involving alcohol. Also, parents should be warned that the finale does not involve the liberation of earth and wedding bells for Harlock. This is an extremely sad (but ultimately hopeful) movie, and you should be prepared to explain some things about life and death and honor and love.
Sure, there are some narrative problems (it's never explained how Harlock escapes after losing his eye, for example), and sure, scientific verisimilitude takes quite a beating (life-sucking supergravity?). And that's just for starters. But narrative flaws aside, there is a belief in honor and courage at the heart of this film that blends with a sense of tragedy, transcending the preachiness usually associated with such topics. Scientific accuracy isn't the point here. Arcadia of My Youth seems to be a quite personal vision of what Matsumoto (a man who remembers another alien occupation) believes about the best and worst of human nature. It isn't so much science fiction as futuristic romance (the old form of the word; not Harlequin). Even if you can't agree with every decision Harlock makes, the film still offers an opportunity to talk about manhood, sacrifice, courage, and ideals. I've not regretted the purchase yet.
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