We have a lot to cover.
There are two philosophies one can adopt in regard to continuity within the universe that Harlock and company occupy. One can take the turbonerd approach wherein every plot thread and detail and chronological discrepancy must somehow make pseudo-scientific sense and be interconnected through some chronologically sound means, or one can take the hippy-dippy art student approach wherein it doesn’t make sense and that doesn’t matter because that’s not the point.
To get an idea of the point, one has to be aware of the 時の輪/ring of time conceit. The phrase appears notably in a line of Harlock’s during a funeral scene for (among too many others) Maya, the woman he loves. He says, roughly: “I’ll see you again, in the far off place where the rings of time touch together.” Time and circumstance in this universe aren’t easily conceived of as a flat circle of eternal return, but one can think of them as a series of loops or rings that intersect or don’t, an appallingly complex Venn diagram wherein certain things are true or untrue depending on which circles touch, and to what degree. Emeraldas and Maetel are sisters, or they aren’t. Harlock was a naval officer before he became a pirate, or he wasn’t. Names recur and transmute subtly, applied to different (though usually similar) things in different stories. There are a couple Zols, there are multiple Miimes, Emeraldas sometimes appears as Emeralda, Miime’s role is sometimes filled by La Mime who is totally different, and there’s a whole dick-ton of Deathshadows which are not even always spaceships. These apparent contradictions can exist because Matsumoto’s sci-fi universe has, intergalactic trappings aside, very little in common with what we normally conceive of as sci-fi stories.
These stories are more like fairy tales. They share a narrative language and iconography set, tons of commonalities but not many solid universalities. Tochiro can die before the story starts, or he can die at any time within it, but his presence (physical or emotional) is essential. Sleeping Beauty can be Aurora behind thorns or Brynhild wreathed in flames, but the supernatural isolation only a fated person can break is key.
With Matsumoto’s influences in mind, this makes a lot of sense. His world is awash in the malleable and fluid influences of fairy tales and mythology. It’s thickly populated with wicked queens and ethereal sylphs, and Harlock himself is modeled as much as a knight and a prince as he is a space pirate. Hell, he even plays the role of Siegfried (more or less) in the exceptionally weird Harlock Saga. His ship is called Arcadia, for Christ’s sake, that is a deep pull. If we appear to be fooling around with fairy tale elements here, I guarantee it’s by design. If icons appear, they are likely intentional.
The remainder of this post is divided into two parts. I call them “This movie is literally just a fucking fairy tale,” and “Kinda-sorta what I mean when I talk about iconography.”
As a Fairy Tale
Harlock’s basic deal within this section of the Almighty Venn Diagram is this: A naval officer charged with protecting an Earth depopulated to prevent its further destruction at the hands of humans, Harlock revolts against Earth’s governing powers when he learns that they’ve been allowing moneyed politicians to continue living on Earth while everyone else is in exile. He tries to wage a one-ship war against the encroaching forces, but is eventually overpowered. He loses his entire crew, his best friend, and his right eye in the ensuing skirmish to capture him. Cornered and desperate, he does something extreme: He pleads with Miime (who in this is an ageless, elfin alien/supernatural being not too unlike her incarnation in Harlock Saga) to release the dark matter energy that powers and protects his ship, and release it onto Earth in hopes that it will protect it similarly.
It doesn’t work. The released dark matter permeates the Earth, the ship, and Harlock, corrupting them all. The Earth is reduced to a barren wasteland, the ship is transformed into a gnarly skeletal pirate ship that repairs itself and billows black smoke everywhere. Harlock is rendered ageless and indestructible, living forever with the drive to overcome his grief and disgrace.
Oh, yeah, and when we come in he’s been afflicted with this sci-fi analogue to a mystical curse in retribution for his naive request to a space witch for 100 years. Betrayal, exercise of freewill for principles and subsequent retribution, trifling with matters one does not understand, century-long curse.
And if it’s a fairy tale, it’s one of those spiritually-charged ones. Just about every significant place (Earth, the Arcadia’s main computer room) is called by exalting names like shrine and chapel. Harlock’s accidental destruction of Earth is a grave sin. Isola accuses Yama of believing himself to be a Savior. The seat of Earth’s government, who already couch their language in florid spiritual terms, just looks like The Space Vatican. Characters descend into and rescue one another from numerous Hell landscapes. While dangling over one such hellmouth, Yama muses on what he’s owed for his own sins. Apparently, what’s he’s owed is Harlock diving down from a distant point of light in the sky to rescue him.
And, While We’re Talking About God
Here’s an introduction to the concept of iconography: In art, notably spiritual art, we use key symbols and a shared cultural education/understanding in order to convey ideas and situations without having to verbally explain them. In earlier spiritual art, iconography was an essential part of storytelling because even illiterate people could pick out which character was which if they shared a common understanding with the artists through oral tradition.
St. Lucia (left) is clearly St. Lucia because she’s carrying eyeballs and a palm leaf. And if the story of St. Lucia isn’t in your cultural cache – if you’re not prepped for what amounts to an in-joke – it just looks like morbid nonsense. Iconography, like Japanese, is what we call a high context language.
With sufficient time and iterations, the same thing can happen to visual language within pop media properties. Don’t believe me? Red lightsaber. Black hat, white hat.
Visual storytelling in general, genres and mediums more specifically, and the works of specific teams and creators even more specifically, over time come to rely on a viewer’s experience with prior texts to supplement their understanding of new texts. Characters, ideas, and entire situations develop their own sets of symbols, and you only really get the full experience of a text by understanding what goes with what or who. Depending on how you like your individual viewing experience, texts that do this to the exclusion of repetitive explanation are either fascinating or ceaselessly frustrating.
There’s a lot of iconography in this universe. Hell, there’s a lot of iconography in the 2013 movie. I’m only going to talk about the Cosmo Dragoon here, for the sake of brevity, because it’s the most consciously framed case of iconography that requires ‘prior reading’ to make sense of.
The Cosmo Dragoon is a significant item within this universe, and a pain in the neck in terms of iconography because its design is kind of fluid between stories. Its general outline is comparable to the Colt M 1848 revolver with outer-spacey alterations. It may have a wooden grip, or it may be a uniform gunmetal color all over. Some iterations have a skull and crossbones emblem on the grip, and others don’t. To make matters more frustrating, in some stories the Arcadia’s crew carry visually similar or identical pistols without special properties. Sometimes St. Lucia is holding her eyes in the palm of her hand, or they’re in a… like, a bowl. Sometimes they’re just, like, eye-buds on some kind of gross organic eye stem she’s holding? Sometimes she doesn’t even have the palm frond, which is just unfair.
More annoying still, characters don’t always outright say what it is. The dialogue and visual language of a scene frame it with significance, and usually the characters ascribe to it some properties we’re assumed to know a Cosmo Dragoon has.
Speaking of the gun’s properties, what the Hell are they, universally?
-Dragoons are limited in number, being Tochiro’s personal creations, and we see between 2 and 4 (or… 5… hush.) depending on the story. Depending on the cast of characters any combination of Emeraldas, Harlock, Tochiro, and Maetel or another significant character may have them. They’re kept within a core group and generally only distributed by people within it.
-Dragoons are powerful weapons with unique qualities. They can, as the plot needs, blow up and punch holes in all kinds of stuff. One of these properties, it’s worth noting, is very important in Galaxy Express 999: The ability to kill machine people, who up to this point have been the story world’s go-to science fiction-ized shorthand for someone who’s abandoned and corrupted their humanity in exchange for immortality and invulnerability. Or, in sadder cases, because outside forces compelled them either physically or emotionally to do so. Point is, Dragoons shoot figurative silver bullets.
-Because they’re limited in supply and kept to a core group, because they’re so powerful, Dragoons carry great significance. They’re given as a gesture of trust in a person’s skills and character; they have to be because they’re not only a match for the giver’s own weapon but an unvoiced invitation into an in-group. It’s said more than once that to misuse them is shameful and unforgivable. They’re treated with significance because, functionally and symbolically, they are significant.
So, back to the movie. In the scene heading up this segment, which immediately follows Harlock’s dive-and-scoop of Yama out of pseudo-Hell, they’re trapped together in a small spacecraft that’s in danger of falling right back into Hell if it doesn’t lift off fast. Harlock’s trying to get it going and Yama, being an ungrateful little strumpet, pulls his gun on Harlock and proceeds to tell him he’s an idiot for saving him and that he has orders to kill him. Harlock says that, no, Yama’s the idiot, and just goes right back to trying to fire up the space hooptie because he’s invulnerable anyway.
Yama, now significantly convinced, leaves his gun conspicuously framed in the shadows at the back of the craft and goes to help. They blast off into the sunlight, and in the next sequence as they’re easing off the space throttle Harlock gets weirdly wistful and starts talking about freedom. You know, like he does. He says that if Yama really wants freedom, he’ll cast off the hang-ups that have him on this assassination mission in the first place, and that if he still wants to kill Harlock once that’s done he can feel free to shoot him.
He’s supposed to shoot him with this: A gun Harlock’s own dialogue (and the necessity of Isola’s scheme to imprison Harlock and destroy the Arcadia’s dark matter engines just to make him mortal enough to execute) confirms is unique in its ability to kill him.
I have seen some grousing online about this sequence because anxious nerds believe Harlock is handing off his own gun. This makes sense as a complaint, if you take the gun as rare, powerful, and significant, AKA a Dragoon. They’re not handed off from one living/present person to another except as a form of succession. Given that Harlock barely knows this guy and the movie’s hardly even started, Harlock giving Yama his gun would be really, really clumsy writing.
But he doesn’t. The hand-off is constructed in such a way that Harlock’s own gun is in frame, exactly where it ought to be.
If this is Yama’s gun or any other generic gun, the cuts and composition of these scenes make no sense and the idea that this gun could kill Harlock when Isola has to form a multi-step plan that takes a lot of time renders huge swaths of the movie pointless and absurd.
If this is a significant gun, if all the purpose with which it’s framed and all the gravity with which it’s handled are a series of conscious decisions in visual storytelling, if its status as something that can kill an invulnerable man is legitimate, then it’s at least meant to remind of a Dragoon, but it’s demonstrably not Harlock’s. I can’t exactly conjecture on whose it’s supposed to be, but it’s clearly important and that importance is lost/seems totally random if you’re relatively new to this set of texts.
That’s a problem with the movie and the Leijiverse in general, and it’s not easy to avoid without telling stories over again and walking you through them. The movie takes a double shot of risk by first assuming the viewer’s familiarity with prior texts will provide emotional and symbolic context, and again by subverting expectations long-time fans would certainly hold for the story. I know I didn’t go into it expecting a Harlock who needs someone to inspire him and support him, even if he’s always explicitly had that in Tochiro and Maya, even if he himself states in the manga that the fire burning in his chest isn’t his – it’s half of Tochiro’s. I didn’t expect to see him emotionally broken, even though that’s not impossible if he’s supposed to be a character who eats and sleeps. I didn’t expect him to pay for his rash actions and need bailing out from an even stupider decision.
And I’m happy I got that. I’m happy that this thing that means so much to me can still surprise me without resorting to insulting me. The last time I had an experience like that was watching Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn and getting Legitimate Gundam Feelings again.