By Andrew Osmond
Should space be serious? It’s a question which worries Hollywood, because space operas become preposterous very easily; maybe it’s best to play them for laughs to be safe. Last year’s hit Guardians of the Galaxy was full of distanced, mixtape-scored knowingness. But any film with a talking racoon as a main character instantly disarms accusations of silliness. More recently, Jupiter Ascending was a dismal flop, with critics arguing the only way to enjoy it was as a camp comedy.
One interesting thing about Outlaw Star is that it blithely goes both ways, sometimes playing for straight space adventure, sometimes for ludicrous farce. Its hero is Gene Starwind, which sounds like the set-up for a joke, but Gene turns out to be a dimensional hero, with phobias and demons which he covers with bravado and a well-notched bedpost. Unlike the hero of the recent Space Dandy, Gene doesn’t need to frequent a joint called ‘Boobies’ to find pretty women!
As Neo magazine noted, Gene is a stereotypically cocky hero “…with abandonment issues and a fear of space flight. Let’s say that again; a space hero with a fear of space fight.” Even Gene’s main sidekick is interesting; a no-nonsense little boy, effectively a little brother who keeps Gene grounded. Rather than the anodyne space kids in Star Trek and the like, the character feels like a forerunner for Al in Fullmetal Alchemist a few years later.
Outlaw Star’s main plot is also played pretty straight, in a genre space-opera way. Gene and Jim run into a femme fatale space outlaw who’s smuggling a mysterious woman, Melfina. Both ladies are being hunted by space pirates. After several turnarounds, the brothers find themselves protecting Melfina, who’s somehow linked to the show’s space-opera MacGuffin, the Galactic Leyline.
Naturally, more characters pour in, including an elegant woman assassin (voiced in English by dub queen Wendee Lee); a manic cat-girl warrior (anime cat-girls were big in the 1990s); and a droll spaceship A.I. called Gilliam II, in the tradition of British SF shows like Red Dwarf and Blake’s 7.
As noted, the series moves freely between straight and silly, and very silly. There’s a lewd hot-spring episode, for example, which feels feels like a prototype for the one in Gainax’s later Gurren Lagann. The hot spring japes were cut when Outlaw Star was aired on America’s Toonami block, while other episodes were toned down too; for a sample of the changes, see here. Another episode revolves around wrestling and catfights (with catgirls).
And yet the hijinks are interspersed with startling character deaths – maybe the writers had been watching Britain’s Blake’s 7 – and wonderful moments. For example, there’s a terrifically exciting rocket take-off in part 8, splendidly animated in the tradition of Gainax’s movie The Wings of Honneamise. In space, ships don’t just fire missiles at their foes, but biff each other with metal arms as well. It’s a funny mecha joke, and a nifty new way to draw space battles.
Outlaw Star was made by the space battle studio, Sunrise (home of the Gundam franchise). It animated the show in 1998, the same year it also made Cowboy Bebop. The latter series had plenty of levity, but it ultimately went in a darker, more melancholic direction, while Outlaw Star stayed on the light side. Cowboy Bebop may be the greater show, but its director Shinichiro Watanabe’s recent work on Space Dandy shows he thinks space opera’s big enough for both approaches.
The writing on Outlaw Star is credited to Takehiko Ito, who’d created the show’s universe in a previous manga, and Hajime Yadate, which the Anime Encyclopedia describes as ‘Sunrise’s in-house idea machine’ – Hajime Yadate is a pseudonym for writers at the studio. The most famous name in the credits is Shoji Kawamori on mecha design; he’d recently directed the rather more serious Macross Plus and conceived the high fantasy of Vision of Escaflowne.