Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.
At first glance, the original 1978 Captain Harlock TV anime seems like a simple space opera for young boys, but over the course of the series, director Rintaro explores a host of moral questions far more sophisticated than the simple good vs. evil struggles of many of the show's contemporaries.
Take Queen Lafresia, the ruler of the Mazone, a matriarchal society of plant-based aliens. Fleeing their homeworld, the Mazone seek to take Earth from humanity by force. Lafresia is no cackling villain, however; she approaches her apocalyptic plan with a steely resolve to do what she believes is necessary to secure a future for her race. In Episode 27, as the Mazone fleet fends off guerilla attacks from Harlock's small pirate crew, Lafresia seeks to understand why Harlock, a criminal rejected by Earth society, is so hellbent on saving the human race. She sends spies to Earth and discovers Mayu, the daughter of Harlock's best friend. Harlock sees himself as her surrogate father, and everything he does in defense of Earth is to protect her future.
But Lafresia doesn't jump on the opportunity. She has been struggling to protect her own civilian population both from the threat of Harlock and the war hawks in her own leadership. Kidnapping a child crosses a line for Lafresia and, more importantly, means that Harlock would no longer see her as a worthy, honorable adversary but as a coward.
Unfortunately, a flare-up of internal strife in her fleet causes Lafresia to break down and order Mayu's capture. The queen doesn't have the heart to give the order herself. Instead, she simply says, "I understand," and leaves the rest to her deputies. It's a classic attempt to avoid the burden of responsibility by refusing to directly pull the trigger.
When Lafresia presents Harlock with the threat, there is no trace of her reservations. In front of Harlock, she must be cold and calculating — without compassion or regret. But after she tells him where Mayu is, counting on Harlock to give up his attacks on the Mazone and chase after her, he calls her what she most fears being called: a coward.
With typical heroic narratives, our hero would be the focal point of this scene, one in which a villain's unthinkable evil sucks the hope out of them. While Harlock indeed seems more distraught than he has ever been, it's a brief, private moment with Lafresia that makes the scene so much more powerful. Harlock's accusation rings in her ears. The queen has done what had to be done to save her people, but, in doing so, she has lowered herself to the level of a common kidnapper.
Harlock is a hero, so seeing him torn between his duty to fight the Mazone and his love for Mayu is what we expect of him. Lafresia is a much more interesting character — a villain who seeks a sense of honor and self-righteousness even as she commits unspeakable crimes. In contrasting Harlock's shaken composure with an intimate moment of guilt from Lafresia, Rintaro humanizes a character that we have assumed for the entire series is nothing more than a ruthless villain. One year before Yoshiyuki Tomino's groundbreaking work on Mobile Suit Gundam, Harlock teaches that even the bad guys are people with feelings and motivations, and wars are sometimes more about pride than they are about victory itself.
Captain Harlock is streaming on Crunchyroll.
Since Snapshots has sort of disappeared for the past couple months, this post officially marks the end of Snapshot's monthly run. We'll still post these columns occasionally as a way of highlighting interesting moments in anime, manga, and games, but they'll be more sporadic. Thanks for reading over the years, and enjoy!