22 August 2002 | BrianDanaCamp
Digital effects overwhelm latest anime from Leiji Matsumoto
"Cosmo Warrior Zero" (2001) is the latest animated work from the pen of pioneering Japanese manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, creator of "Galaxy Express 999," "Captain Harlock" and "Queen Millennia." In a future era where humans and "mechanoids" (machine people) co-exist in an uneasy peace after a devastating war (won by the mechanoids), Captain Warrius Zero is given a mixed crew of humans and mechanoids to stop space pirates from preying on Earth Federation transport ships. He gets an official blessing right at the start from none other than the legendary Captain Harlock himself, the dean of space pirates, who, after a brief confrontation which Zero is fated to lose, declares respect for his opponent's courage and leaves the scene of battle. Zero's assignment is then to pursue Harlock throughout the galaxy.
Much of the action, at least as seen in the first four episodes of this 13-part TV series, focuses on the conflicts aboard Zero's aging battleship, the Karyu, and the insecure Zero's attempts to calm tensions developing among the disparate elements among his crew and the attractive, if hard-nosed, First Officer, Marina Oki, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Zero's late wife who was killed during the war. In one intense face-off, gunfire is even exchanged between humans and mechanoids. At times, the action resembles a serious replay of the hijinks aboard the Soyokaze in the comic anime space opera, "The Irresponsible Captain Tylor" (1992).
The script has Zero facing a number of moral dilemmas involving the issue of preferential treatment for humans. In the third episode, a ship of self-proclaimed human rebels fires on a mechanoid-run space station and Captain Zero has to intervene. His ethical imperative is to ignore the rebel captain's appeals to his humanity and defend the space station. Things are made tougher by his own crew members' pleas to side with the rebels. In the fourth episode, Zero is compelled to apprehend a human mercenary waging a one-man war against a mechanoid regime on a remote planet.
One of the problems in adapting Matsumoto's works to anime in the modern era is the comparative failure of digital animation to capture the stark, dramatic imagery that dominated such past Matsumoto series as "Galaxy Express 999" and "Captain Harlock." The baroque look of such series was enhanced by the flowing, organic linework and the warm, hand-painted colors that shifted as the drawings sped past the eye. The settings were stylized, but always somewhat dark and oppressive, with great shadows and clouds, as they reflected the bleak future awaiting humans in a machine-dominated era. The artist's vision was so strong, it was as if Matsumoto himself drew every cel, even though he often had little participation after contributing the original story. Computer-created digital animation, however, has the unfortunate effect of flattening the colors, making them uniform in texture, and smoothing out all the rough edges in the design. Everything's just a little too bright and colorful to convey the emotional undertones and essential loneliness of the characters in Matsumoto's universe.
This is particularly a problem with "Cosmo Warrior Zero" where the linework is too thick and the design inconsistent, with Zero overly detailed while his human crewmen are much too simply drawn. The computer-generated character movement is often awkward and sloppy in a way that was not so glaring in the more deliberately limited character movement of the hand-drawn era, when a simple closeup of Harlock standing still on a desolate planet, with his hair flapping in the breeze, was enough to convey worlds of feeling.
Of the four New Wave all-digital Matsumoto works--including QUEEN EMERALDAS (1998), HARLOCK SAGA (1999), and MAETEL LEGEND (2000)--this series is arguably the least successful in terms of animation and visual look. It does, however, tell a gripping, well-written story that differs significantly from Matsumoto's earlier works by presenting a hero who is not a loner, rebel or romantic outsider, but a duty-bound military officer who is flawed and, sometimes, ineffectual, but has made peace with the mechanoids despite his own personal loss in the war. Perhaps it represents a softening of Matsumoto's cosmic view, a willingness to compromise as the technological upheavals of the 21st Century become seemingly inescapable.
In any case, something significant in the appeal of Matsumoto's work is missing in the digital era. I would urge anime fans to seek out his earlier, similarly-themed works, most notably the two GALAXY EXPRESS 999 movies (1979 & 1981) and the one earlier Captain Harlock film officially available in the U.S., ARCADIA OF MY YOUTH (1982).