Outlaw Star: Taking the Old Grappler Ship out for Another Spin

Vicious bar shootouts, mortal combat with crazy magic pirates and, of course, sex with prostitutes–a rather standard course for an Outlaw Star episode. In this case, the first. As a middle schooler, this regular dose of sex and violence made me feel grown-up as FUCK. Time has passed since then, and now that I am an actual adult two years shy of 30, I felt it was high time to take a nostalgia trip to the Towards Star Era with Seihou Bukyou Outlaw Star. Please be aware that comprehension of this article requires knowledge of the Outlaw Star story, and will have spoilers.

Outlaw Star

But first, context. For those not in-the-know, the late 90s saw a small emergence of “space westerns” limited to three works–Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star. While these works were met with varying degrees of limited success in their native Japan (Bebop likely hitting it the biggest with the subculture crowd, getting a movie soon after air and a concert tour, but that’s a story for another day) they took off huge on American TV with a group of nascent anime fans, including yours truly. How does Outlaw Star stand as one of these great space westerns, years later?

While nostalgia glasses are certainly on, they are now being looked through by critical eyes built on 18 years of anime viewing.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the first thing that struck me upon watching Outlaw Star again was its thick pulp atmosphere. Cowboy Bebop struck the perfect balance between chic and pulp, while Trigun–being based on manga–had the traditional anime sheen on it. Among the three, Outlaw Star most certainly gets the Gold Star for being delicious pulpy sophomoric junk food.

Let’s start with our main hero–Gene Starwind. While Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Stampede are rather romanticized male leads, I am sure many viewers back in the day saw themselves in Gene. Me being 28 as of this writing and a salaryman living in Japan, I sure do. He plays, he pays to play, and he goes out to drink all the time. He uses money irresponsibly in general, and simply thinks he’s The Shit. The typical wannabe-macho male spirit in him is strong, with some shiny anime polish.

Outlaw Star

Another thing that probably endears Gene to the audience are his weaknesses. The “thinking you’re The Shit” part is a defense mechanism against his insecurities–another key male trait. One could say that Gene is part of that transition towards writing leading anime male characters with personality traits that resonate more with the audience. Cobra knows he’s The Shit, while Gene has to think it. Cobra doesn’t have to pay to play with anyone–they just come straight to him. Contrary to Cobra, Gene will make attempts and is not always successful. To be fair, he probably has a higher “closure rate” than us trolls watching–it took me to adulthood to realize that him and Hilda were fucking in the earlier episodes.

While I find Gene’s cavalier male spirit to be very relatable, the rest of the characters are pretty normal. That said, they all have a lot of life to them, interesting quirks, and are all very likable. Jim is the typical straight man sidekick to Gene’s knee-jerk persona. He does the “brotherly bond” thing with Gene and it works out alright; complete with all the “let’s do this!” moments of friendship along with the “fuck you, asshole!” arguments. Aisha is boisterous and in everyone’s face all the time. Growing up on a steady diet of anime over the years, these characters are typically split between annoying and endearing. It could just be my nostalgia, but Aisha’s endearing–she pulls through numerous times, and is a good part of the team. Suzuka is the Goemon of the group–a samurai, and hardly ever there. She makes a big splash in her first episode, but watching the show now I realize that she fades away at several points throughout the show. Melfina is of course a sexy bunch of nothingness–with great doujinshi by Mogudan–but her mystery drives the story and counters the colorful personalities of the rest well enough.

Outlaw Star

While the characters are somewhat by-the-book, with the show being called Outlaw Star, the characters do have rough edges to them. I already spoke of Gene’s vices, but even serious child genius Jim ironically urges Gene into selling his body for money in the very first episode, and always has a zinger prepared to fire off when needed. Aisha makes a big deal of her prestigious Ctarl-Ctarl heritage, but usually finds herself doing low-rent part-time gigs to get by. As mentioned above–Suzuka is hardly ever there. One thing that sticks out about her however is the hedonistic manner in which she spends her free time. She sat out of the Outlaw Star’s space race, and went off to just hang out on the beach and gamble (on the Outlaw Star winning in a race she’s sitting out on). She kind of just does her own thing; a funny contrast to her stone serious introduction. Once again, the most round character with no edges on her at all is Melfina, who just sits around wondering who she is.

The show has a lot of great side characters who do well do help built the show’s slimy futuristic outlaw world. The first one we meet is Blue Heaven mechanic Swanzo, a serious guy who’s very hardline about rules, taking a very aggressive attitude to Gene and crew immediately. I would of course be remiss to not mention Fred, Gene’s gay friend and weapons merchant, who always takes any opportunity possible to hit on our red-haired hero. Also of note are the three “Hot Spring Planet” Tenrei wizards–Ark, Hadul and Urt–the first two (the dudes) first seem to command immense power, but will let it all go for a nudie video of Urt (the chick). She happily makes the video–showing of nearly all of her stuff–but has the cassette set to explode at the end.

Outlaw Star

The show doesn’t waste any time telling its story, and things move very quickly. The issue is that the show has a bunch going on, and in the end nothing is quite fully developed. One big thing that stands out are the Anten Seven. When they first appear just after the show’s half-way mark in the The Seven Emerge, expectations are that the show will jolt into overdrive and put the characters against these seven deadly foes one-by-one. I mean, one would certainly think that from watching the The Seven Emerge. The opening scene features all the members of the deadly group enshrouded in darkness, vowing to take back the Outlaw Star. This is followed by a heavy, moody build up to Gene’s duel with the first Anten Seven member–Leilong–putting him into a very convincing state of anxiety over his own mortality. The eventual duel takes place, and sees huge damage on the part of the good guys, closing with the dramatic death of the Anten Seven’s first member.

Trigun took great care to make sure Vash faced all of the Gung Ho Guns–all 13 of them– while Outlaw Star only gives three of the seven their own episodes. Okay, four if you count Tobigera’s role in the hot spring episode. They are all great episodes–the above-mentioned The Seven Emerge is a keen examination of Gene’s insecurities, effectively painting him as the post-bubble-era-not-Cobra SF action hero that he is. Iraga‘s episode–The Strongest Woman in the Universe–has Gene cross-dressing, Fred’s potential forced straight-marriage, and Aisha kicking ass. Another episode that stays in the memory is Hanmyo‘s–Jim’s bittersweet love story with a young girl assassin and her two psychic cats, who he unwittingly kills in space battle. Be them funny or serious, these three got chances to shine in those brilliant episodes.

But what about the other four? Like I said, Tobigera kind of gets an episode, but he’s primarily relegated to comic relief in the porny Hot Springs Planet Tenrei episode. The other members of the Seven are pushed to the big showdown at the end, some really getting the short end of the stick. The two who suffer the most are Hamushi–a bad-ass and big-breasted assassin–and Tobigera (who had it bad enough on Tenrei). Both are done away with quickly without ever showing off their big, “cool thing.” We kind of get that Hitoriga and Suzuka had something going on, but you only get the full story if you read some obscure novelization of the series. Jukai gets a few seconds to duke it out against Aisha, but that’s about it for him. All of these guys are introduced as supreme badasses earlier on in the show, and the fact that some of them never even have time to do their Gung Ho Gun thing knocks down their coolness factor a ton. A pity, considering they all look way cooler than any of the Gun Ho Guns.

This lack of completeness is not restricted to the Anten Seven–the allegedly maniacal  MacDougall brothers also suffer. They are introduced as potentially deadly villains, and throughout the show we kind of get what they want to do, but gradually fall apart along with the rest of the show, receiving a half-assed conclusion.

Outlaw Star

The show has a nice steady build up in the beginning, opening with the first onslaught of relatively small-fry pirates, and moving onto the above-mentioned introduction of the Anten Seven. But it all breaks down in the second half, when the writers realized they didn’t have nearly enough time to do all that they wanted to do and say all that they wanted to say. While we do understand what the Galactic Leyline is in the end, the final showdown between the Outlaw Star and a hideously mutated Hazanko (and along-for-the-ride Tobigera) is prime 1990s anime rush ending nonsense.

But, it’s hard to get mad at Outlaw Star.

Nostalgia is in full drive when watching this show. Its flaws are acutely in view as an adult, but I can let it off the hook. What helps is the show’s refreshing carefree attitude. One fine is example is at the end of The Seven Emerge–when Leilong is killed only to pop back out of the ground at the end of the episode, as if being fatally shot was nothing. A seemingly pivotal episode leading up to Gene and crew’s big showdown on the Galatic Leyline is one of the few I keep mentioning in this review–Hot Springs Planet Tenrei. The episode was banned in America, and originally aired in Japan on my 10th birthday. The episode is pretty important as it covers Gene’s acquisition of the rare and powerful Caster shells he needs to take on the baddies at the Galactic Leyline. Even in the last episode, a good portion of the climactic fight between the Outlaw Star and Hazanko is rendered as Gene and the giant Tao master going at each other in fisticuffs. Gene gets a headbutt in, and smiles.

Outlaw Star is a show where the word GO flashes on the screen to kick off the opening sequence in each episode, and both the eyecatches and screen transitions have a very in-your-face gun-firing motif. While Outlaw Star tries to tell some epic story jammed with more content than its runtime can handle, in the end all it’s concerned with is having a good time. And Outlaw Star is a pretty good time.

Outlaw Star

While Outlaw Star opens as a proper serial, the show becomes quite episodic after a while–perhaps because they had to drop bits of the story here and there to fit the show into 26 episodes. However, this episodic nature allows the show to slip in interesting one-shots expanding upon the world of Outlaw Star. One episode I remember watching again and again as a kid is Final Countdown–the bomb episode. It’s a tight and tense thriller that wraps up nicely and shows how the crew works together effectively as a team. There is of course also Advance Guard from Another World–AKA “the cactus episode.” The episode features a psychic cactus controlling people’s minds and forcing them to eat bad icecream, with greater plans of taking over the universe. Between the main story, the one-shots and each episode’s opening narration–which explain different aspects of the universe–you can tell Outlaw Star has lots of ideas.

On the technical side, the show has dramatic peaks and valleys. The first episode is red-hot on the production values, rendering the show’s deliberately rough and scruffy character designs with care. Shadows are deep and dark, and the Chinese-inspired slum our heroes live in is shown in great detail. This careful attention to detail completely flies off the rails from the second episode onward. The entire first half of the show is very rough, with a just a few good looking episodes here and there. The staff finds their way in the second half, despite characters looking very inconsistent between episodes. This is personally not a bad thing, as I like how 90s anime didn’t strive to stay perfectly on model between episodes–especially if the animation director had a cool style. The second half of Outlaw Star looks consistently good, with refreshingly diverse art styles.

No matter how red-hot or beat-up the animation looks, Outlaw Star has consistently great action scenes. A lot of the big fights are centered around the use of heavy firepower between regular human beings, which makes for very intense spectacle. Gene and crew use anything from small hand guns, bazookas, to missile launchers in dynamic battles that unfold in anywhere from large open fields to restaurant interiors.  Needless to say, it all results in great, compelling chaos. The show is quite aware of its frequent state of pandemonium, and will be completely casual about having characters do the cartoony pulls-bazooka-out-of-pocket trick. Even Suzuka–who just has a wooden sword by her side–leaves huge property damage. The woman cuts a truck in half in her first appearance.

The star of the crew’s arsenal is Gene’s Caster Gun–watching how it fucked up different bad guys in different ways time and time again was one of my favorite parts of the show as a kid, and my feelings remain the same now.

Outlaw Star

The show puts a lot of effort into building up a rough-and-tumble atmosphere with its setting. Outlaw Star has an interesting Chinese-influenced visual motif for a lot of it, with cities at night lit up by large neon signs rendered in Kanji, complete with the requisite bits of of grudge and grime in between. Whenever the crew sets up their homebase somewhere, their residence looks lovingly lived in, rendered in convincing detail. While the amount of detail put into rendering the show’s setting fluctuates, the production team does their best to present a pretty compelling Chinese-inspired future space world, with other influences mixed in. I am a big fan of how the characters always sit down to eat huge portions of Chinese food when they go out–that’s a good night out for alcoholics residing in Tokyo.

I had always been a fan of the Outlaw Star soundtrack–going out of my way to track down its two discs when I moved to Japan–and it still holds up. As an adult one feels the cheese factor more, the but it all compliments the show with a number of up-tempo pieces ripe with the atmosphere of adventure, while the opening song is a red-hot 90s J-rock tune that establishes a strong momentum for each episode.

My viewing of the show this time around marked the first time I had ever seen it in Japanese, and what struck me immediately was Gene’s voice. Shibuya Shigeru gives Gene a nice young and reckless streak, complementing is his established age of 20, whereas the English sounded a bit too old. An interesting thing about Gene’s dialogue is its distinct manner of Japanese roughness that has disappeared from works made today. Among his slang-ridden lexicon, Gene will interestingly call is enemies “otaku.” You will hear this often in older Japanese works that feature tough guys in lawless worlds, and its usage is more correct than what the word has come to mean. If one were to put Gene’s “otaku” into English, it would probably be something–“hey bub,” or “hey pal.” The style of dialogue is an echo of an earlier time, and gives the show a richer taste watching it now. The rest of the performances are solid, as expected. Unfortunately the voice of Suzuka–Sayuri–is no longer with us, something I found out when doing research for this review.

In the end, watching this as an adult after over 10 years, the flaws of Outlaw Star are very apparent. If I had not seen Outlaw Star all the those years ago, I probably would not have liked it as much now. There is a lot of nostalgia here, so despite the show being as rough as it is, I can’t help but love it. While I would like to see the alternate-universe Outlaw Star that is 52 episodes, giving you a full and complete story with a deep look at the world, I am very happy with the Outlaw Star we have now–the one that occupies a special place in my heart.

Outlaw Star

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