Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick Vol. 1

"Admiral...there be whales here!"
-- Commander Montgomery Scott, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

New ideas are hard to come by. Having just finished my last final exam of the semester today, I know just how few ideas pop out of my own head at the right time. But even more important, how often do we see something brilliantly original on TV or in a movie? Every big blockbuster this winter is going to be unoriginal...no matter how much you like Harry Potter 4 or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe or King Kong, all of them are either remakes or book adaptations. Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said. But noting the quality of all three movies I just mentioned, it might just be possible that a reworked telling of an old tale can really work.

Anime has been guilty of adapting manga to animation for a while, but we're seeing more and more adaptations of old books by throwing them into outer space. The Count of Monte Cristo is one highly-advertised show doing this, and Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick is another. Some stories lend themselves to the transition better, but I wasn't expecting whaling in space to be anything but ludicrous. Indeed, the makers of Hakugei have skirted the fine line between believability and parody...but judging from the first five episodes, it might just work. It's hard to judge where the show is going to go, seeing as the first two hours are almost nothing more than exposition, a tedious process at times. But it's very possible that it will soar from this foundational point, and I'll be around to see where it goes.

We are in the far-flung future, somewhere in the 46th century, as Hakugei begins. Lucky Luck, a stowaway, has finally made it to the edge of the universe, the Nantucket Nebula. Lucky's there to track down the mysterious Captain Ahab, who's known as the greatest whale hunter in the galaxy. As it so happens, derelict space barges abandoned by their corporations have made a mess of outer space, but they often contain plenty of loot. Whatever you need, Ahab and his band of misfits will find it for you, provided you have huge bankroll to pay for it. Lucky is determined to make it as an apprentice for Ahab, even if he can be a little obsessive at times. As Lucky gets to know the crew and their stories, the tale unfurls until Lucky's secret gets out and Ahab's history with the "great white whale" comes to light.

For me, one of Hakugei's highlights is going to make it a very hard sell, and that is how the whole production harkens back to the late '70s and early '80s. The visuals bring back the glory years of Captain Harlock and Lupin III, Macross and the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Computers don't have lines and lines of data, they have colorful lines and circles and shapes. The mammoth ships look for all the world like the Rebellion's frigates in Return of the Jedi. The character designs appear almost identical to those in BlackJack, another retro title directed by Osamu Dezaki, and many of the director's trademarks (such as going from an action moment to a still "watercolor painting") are in place. Even the soundtrack evokes the feel of anime from a generation ago -- no ultra hip J-rock stars here! We're also in the "science fantasy" world where scientific accuracy is unimportant if it gets in the way of storytelling. It's glorious to find a show with modern flair that preserves the look and feel of what I loved as a younger anime fan. But that "old-school" vibe will likely have new fans cringing in the aisles. From glancing at some reviews around the web, they completely misunderstand what Hakugei is attempting. The animation and music aren't bad -- they are intentional. The whole thing is intended to have the same epic feel as many classic anime.

Where are the show's faults for one like me who loves the styling? It's within the pacing and the character types. Although I did enjoy this disc, I could only watch an episode or two at a time before taking a break, working on something else, and then returning. It's not boring in episodic chunks, but I think it could be if viewed in one sitting. Although we get a couple of battles and surprises, virtually everything here is groundwork. Hakugei is content to let our characters tell us about themselves rather than to show their deeds, and it's a misfire. For crying out loud, we don't even reach the central theme of the show's plot until episode four's final three minutes! Combined with some secondary players that don't make a solid impression beyond their roles -- doctor, computer geek, barbarian, swordsman -- and you have may find yourself yawning in spite of your interest. Even Lucky, our supposed protagonist, isn't all that interesting. I liked the characters, mind you, but very few made a deep impression.

But why did I enjoy the disc anyway? Frankly, it's all Captain Ahab. In the Japanese language version, he's a deep-voiced hunter with a heap of bravado, a pound of humor, and just a peppering of madness. His character is what makes you think that things could go far differently than what we might expect. Just as my interest started to wane, there he was again, shaking things up. Ahab's very much like Harlock...perhaps Harlock pushed over the edge somewhere in his past. The mysteries laid out are alright and the plot thickens slightly here and there, but Ahab actually keeps the show together. (Admittedly, the characterization in the English dub makes Ahab's character sound like a scurvy dog with fleas, and I couldn't listen to it for more than a few moments...I wouldn't recommend it.)

I was pleasantly surprised that at least the one character everyone knows from the original story was kept vaguely intact. Sure, this story is going to vary wildly (and I do mean wildly) from the original, but there's enough of a root to see where the connections lie. And has anybody tried to read Melville's novel recently? It's in some of the most turgid prose you'll ever see. If you really want to see Moby Dick, this isn't it...the original has a truly crazy Ahab, along with a story of man vs. nature and a completely different viewpoint on the great white whale. The characters save for Ahab are much different. But at least the inspiration makes sense, unlike say a certain recent show with reborn Norse gods who don't act anything like themselves.

To give the first volume of Hakugei a B+ is a stretch, but one I'm going to make because I personally enjoyed it a lot. Its retro stylings won't appeal to many and its speed will turn off others, but I liked it enough to want to know where the story is going to go from here. It's cool in a way many people will never understand. Now if it never picks up the pace, I'll be disappointed. I'm extending it grace in the hope that, like the underappreciated Witch Hunter Robin, it will find its feet after establishing itself and turn into a great show. Right now, it has a few problems but a load of possibilities.

Hakugei: The Legend of the Moby Dick Vol. 1 -- mild violence, mild profanity, very brief (male) nudity -- B+