Review of Outlaw Star (1998)

Moving picture, 11 hours

Seen in 2016.

A pair of freelancers—ace combat pilot Gene and 11-year-old computer whiz Jim—come into possession of a small but highly advanced space ship, the Outlaw Star. It’s FTL capable and hauls a decent amount of cargo for the pair’s struggling troubleshooter business. It’s also excellent in both races and fights, in part because it’s got an AI and an artificial human engineered to run it. Its true purpose is the search for a galactic ley line, a.k.a. “dragon vein”, a cosmological mystery connected to prehistoric interference with the known sapient species, the Akashic records, and the only known means of FTL travel: a substance known as “dragonite” which humans first encountered in a meteorite on Chinese soil. Maintenance on the Outlaw Star is very expensive, and some powerful post-Chinese geomancer pirates want it for themselves.

Outlaw Star is similar to the contemporary Cowboy Bebop (1998), but veers toward more high-concept space opera with shōnen rather than seinen characters and physics. It is almost mecha anime in that one class of space ships, termed grapplers, fight with mechanical arms in close combat, though they lack heads and legs.

Outlaw Star is also an opportunity to think about gender in Japanese animation over time. Consider the virile Gene’s non-haram harem of female stereotypes, which gets a pink bedroom still shot in each episode’s opening: the shy and relatable Melfina who takes up cooking and other domestic chores for the crew despite having no experience with or particular interest in them, the harebrained and hot-blooded werecat princess Aisha, and the post-Japanese virago assassin Suzuka. In the conceptually very similar “Sol Bianca” (1990) OVA, the entire crew is female, which was a nerdy, commercially unsuccessful decision in 1990. Compare “Silent Möbius” (1991). If Outlaw Star had been made around the time of Sol Bianca, some of its supporting females would likely have been male, as was the custom at the time. If this show had instead been made when I watched the first couple of DVDs, some 6 years after Love Hina (2000), either Jim or Gene would likely have been replaced with a girl, or else by gay patron Fred Luo. The male lead, whether he was captain or not, would not have been so cocky and confident as Gene is.

When I watched the rest of the show in 2016, Outlaw Star felt remarkably aged. It’s a disappointing transitional fossil between the action-oriented, male-dominated adventures that had come before in the main streams of shōnen and seinen fantasy/SF anime, and the more character-oriented, female-dominated and pandering era that followed based on fan polls and other market research. This was the first time the late 1990s felt quite so retro to me. No doubt the relatively late use of analog cel colouring (brush painting) contributed to this effect. Compared to early digipaint the colours are relatively lively, while the lines are made for standard-definition TV, which now looks charmingly rugged. This is the mature form of a lost breed, with just a little bit of trashy CGI.

The writing and directing is a good deal hackier here than on Bebop. Some cuts, in combat and otherwise, are accompanied by the sound of a shot: a confusing effort to maintain tension. Lead-out and lead-in commercial bumpers also go with the sound of firearms. The character design is mediocre with some bad cases of huge ’90s hair and shoulder pads alongside Aisha’s idiotic and thankfully silent chime choker. Melfina’s poncho over a shirt and tie (!) is an interesting touch, tying into the “space Western” theme.

The animation rarely stands out but the dumb technological premises of the show lend themselves to the occasional Itano circus, as in episode 20, where the male leads use classic shōnen teamwork to defeat an assassin. Unbeknownst to them she’s Jim’s new love interest, a little girl whose deadpan introduction in episode 15 is the funniest moment of the series: “Under the direct command of Hazanko, leader of the Hundred and Eight Stars pirate group, are the Anten Seven, a feared group of assassins. Tobigera, a master of disguise and the tools of assassination.” We see Tobigera as a black figure with luminous eyes over three ominous masks before the narrator continues: “Hanmyo, prodigy of space combat using cats.” This is the one who’s so unpredictably killed five episodes later, glimpsed here doing nocturnal tai chi with one of her cats beating a drum in the background. This joke could have been improved only by the inclusion of “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955).

References here: Cowboy Bebop (1998), Firefly (2002), Black Lagoon (2006).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series