It's a testament to Leiji Matsumoto that he has created some of the most beloved characters and series in all of anime and manga fandom. From Space Cruiser Yamato (aka Star Blazers) to Queen Millenia, Matsumoto has formed worlds that still entertain audiences today, despite their often-dated appearances. Captain Harlock first appeared in animated form over 20 years ago, and so it's no small thing that Harlock Saga in many ways reintroduces the characters from Matsumoto's universe to a new generation. Although there are some significant glitches in Harlock Saga, it's still an entertaining dive into the world of the space pirate who embodies the "live free or die" ethic.
A mysterious gold ingot moves the crux of the plot of Harlock Saga. The Rhein Gold is a rare artifact that had its origins in the beginnings of the universe, and legend has it that if it's shaped into a ring, it can give the wearer unimaginable power. Alberich, a strange, malevolent man who wears a mask fitted with a demonic grin, has taken it upon himself to steal the Rhein Gold. As we soon learn, Alberich has far more sinister purposes in mind--he plans to destroy Valhalla, the home of the gods at the center of the universe, and with its destruction obliterate the universe. As the movie starts, Tochiro (the creator of Harlock's ship, the Arcadia) is hot on the trail of this elusive madman. He joins up with Harlock, Emeraldas, Maetel, and Meeme as they follow just one step behind Alberich as he winds his way through the universe to accomplish his ends. But there's more to the story than that--as with most Harlock stories, good and evil are not nearly as black and white as they originally seem. Can Harlock and his friends stop Alberich before his dreams destroy the galaxy?
Those who have come to know and love Matsumoto's creations will know everything they will find here--grand space opera. The scripting, music, artwork...all parts of the production are tuned towards the end of presenting a grand epic. There's certainly a lot to like here, especially for Harlock fans. As always, Harlock is the quintessential anime character, bold and fearless and cooler than any animated character has the right to be. The story itself is not spectacular, but it is told well, and it builds to a fine climax. It's also quite a bit more flowing and much less melodramatic than some other Harlock stories--there are no grandiose death soliloquies or statement of purpose speeches here, as can been found in other places in the Harlock timeline. The artwork is great--and except for maybe 20 seconds of CGI, it is all pretty flawless. The music is also something to note. Based on Wagner's magnum opus opera "Ring Cycle", the score is phenomenal, certainly as grand as the proceedings it underlines. Although the music is virtually all original, the underpinnings of Wagner are still evident, and the Moscow International Symphony Orchestra plays it beautifully.
The central problem to Harlock Saga is that it simply doesn't get off its feet for some time. Harlock barely appears in the first episode and has only a minor role in the second. Tochiro is a headliner here, and though that's not bad, there are some who will long to see more of Harlock himself. The story doesn't really get moving until an hour in, but from that point on things are quite strong. Also, some viewers may be taken aback by the seriousness of the proceedings. There are very few moments of levity whatsoever, which is a drawback in that this feels like far lighter material than, say, the Harlock movie Arcadia Of My Youth. Finally, the artwork is beautiful, but the designs are dated. The Arcadia still looks fantastic, as do most of the characters; however, the space battle sequences feel lacking, and the explosions are so retro-looking that they nearly made me laugh at one point. This does have an impact on one's opinion of the show.
I would recommend Harlock Saga to anyone interested in getting into the mythos, though I'd still make sure that Arcadia Of My Youth was first on the list. Harlock Saga is not the best of Matsumoto's work, but it is a good intro to the characters and is not a bad way to spend three hours. (One good note with the US DVD--it does contain all six episodes and is priced very well considering that fact. It's also got some nice extras, including a very basic Harlock primer.)
Harlock Saga -- violence, mild language -- B+