The Story Behind the Bizarre English Dub of Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Opera Captain Harlock, Space Pirate tells the story of its hero, Captain Harlock’s quest against the boredom of his homeworld and a race of primitive space conquerors. Renowned for its existential themes as well as its significant impact on four decades of successor space opera anime, the anime series is known for its 1981 English dub, which takes a sardonic and irreverent approach to the lofty and painfully heartfelt themes of series. alienation, agency, loyalty and freedom.


However, in addition to confusing a beloved, but admittedly serious, manga and anime, this notorious localization highlights the fundamental role of tone in world-building, and the adaptations of difficult and tricky tasks to bring to new ones. viewers. For Harlock in particular, the failure of this adaptation can be directly linked to both its mishandling of the delicate balance of the series’ aggressive existential themes and its various tonal elements.

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Your, explained

A simple definition of tone is the audience’s impression of the creators’ attitude towards the subject – both its settings and personalities as well as its emotional stakes and themes. Tone is subjective, and although general terms exist (such as “light” or “dark”), it is difficult to define precisely. Every conceivable aspect of a series – its plot, art design, dialogue, and music – all contribute to its tone. On top of that, in anime the tone tends to be harsh in its unpredictability, often varying as much within a single series as within a genre. However, even among other space operas, given the burden of communicating and expressing its noble and complex concerns, the tone of Harlock is remarkably unsubtle.


The initial release of the anime adaptation in 1978 received an English dub through production company ZIV International and Family Home Entertainment, a VHS distributor. After the success of titles such as Robotech and Mobile Suit Gundam in Japan, the English language Harlock had a unique format. His localization came in two volumes; the former mostly mirrored the original, while the latter was, to say the least, very different – a move that proved disastrous for the series’ future in North America.

A Jolly Roger floating in space

Unlike other irreverent and humorous dubs such as the infamous “Abridged” series of Dragon Ball Z or the legendary ghost stories dub, the problem with ZIVs Harlock isn’t so much his attempt to muddy the show’s romantic tropes, but rather his humor gets in the way of what made Harlock irresistible. Although the series is complex and mature, it is not subtle; its design is loaded with symbolic imagery and its dialogue with philosophical resonance, so that its atmosphere is at times insistent and oppressive. Despite this, like any other anime, Harlock features frequent moments of levity, serving a vital function of “comic relief” – allowing its viewers to break away from its demanding (but worthwhile) sincerity.


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This is endemic through the works of Leiji Matsumoto, gun border at Space Battleship Yamato and galaxy express 999. All have a deliberately caricatural facade, which over time reveals heavy, even disturbing stories and themes. For Harlock in particular, like other anime, its impressive musical score, vocal direction, and acting work together to create an emotional framework that makes its particular goals attainable. Given the delicate interdependence between the various tonal elements, ZIV chipping away at this emotional base left the whole series unbalanced.


Although Harlock’s The popularity would inspire a host of adaptations and continuations in various media, becoming widely influential in ’80s and ’90s anime, those thorny tonal issues in its North American localization would persist for decades. The lesson then is that, much like accepting that Harlock’s Jolly Roger can still float through space, suspending disbelief in the shameless emotional world of Captain Harlock, Space Pirate remains an unavoidable entry price, but ultimately valid.