Star Wars made a true global impact when it debuted in 1977, and Japan responded swiftly with a slew of manga inspired by it. Or maybe space opera was just in the zeitgeist that year? Whichever it was, some of the old school’s most iconic franchises debuted in close proximity. And if the Force Awakens hype has got you thirsty for 70s-rooted galactic adventure, we’ve got some out-of-this-world recs for you.
A refresher for those who might not what know “space opera” means exactly: like many shorthands, it started as a slam. In early sci-fi fandom, the writers and readers of “hard” science fiction (futurism extrapolating real technology) belittled “soft” science fiction (pulp fantasies with gadgets) by calling it as hackneyed as daytime soap operas. Buck Rogers is space opera, while Asimov’s Foundation is proper sci-fi. According to them, at least.
In clearer terms, if a show wants to follow the exploits of a pirate raiding space ships–and not bother with any laws of physics–it’s probably a space opera. And if that pirate is literally sailing a battle ship beside asteroids, it’s probably an anime space opera.
SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
Ol’ Cobra sure likes ladies. And cigars. The dude’s adventures have more the colorful, sexy surrealism of Barbarella and Our Man Flint, and really, his personality is all that matters. The series takes place in a universe where everything and the kitchen sink gets thrown around, with little “lore” to make sense of any of it. You watch to see this swarthy, cocky ladykiller get out of hysterically over-the-top predicaments. It’s as simple as that. Doesn’t even matter how he got into them.
More than any of these recs, Space Adventure Cobra serves as a fun, campy time capsule of the 70s. For in the history of phallic weapons, Cobra’s awkward, cybernetic forearm cannon might be the most penile. Just… just… look at the thing.
FUN FACTS: Cobra’s feature-length adventure is available for streaming on Hulu. Some portions might seem familiar because they were edited into Matthew Sweet’s iconic “Girlfriend” music video.
If these mangaka were trying to ape Han Solo, they were far more interested in the concept of a space pirate than anything about Harrison Ford’s performance. Harlock is the outlaw mentioned above, piloting the good ship Arcadia through the cosmos, but he has a tacit grimness more familiar to Clint Eastwood fans…
“Baroque” and “Byronic” are the operative terms. This is the magnum opus of Leiji Matsumoto (for any who wondered where the retro-futurism of Interstella 5555 came from). Perfecting the space-opera-as-rock-opera aesthetic, he gives nearly every character lush and luxurious locks. But while Harlock himself might have the look of disco-era grooviness, he’s nothing if not heavy.
In this future, humanity has grown docile under the thrall of an evil alien empire–and Harlock remains basically the sole resistor! Wearing both crossbones and the number “42” (a Japanese symbol for death), he’s a man who feels much, much more deeply, and each one of his space-faring excursions ends with some philosophic reflection. That might sound like a downer, but a genre crowded with naive journeyman and bawdy swashbucklers could really use more of Harlock’s thoughtful romanticism.
The Captain got a CG update last year, but why not go classic and stream 42 episodes from the original?
GALAXY EXPRESS 999
Another classic from the bountiful imagination of Matsumoto-San! Indeed, these two series are part of an earlier “cinematic universe,” and Captain Harlock met the passengers of the 999 on occasion.
If the Arcadia seemed surreal, the Galaxy Express out-does it by virtue of being a steam-powered locomotive that chugs along through space. Is it traveling on train tracks? Of course not! Stop spoiling the fun. Actually, this show demonstrates how the radical tonal shifts of modern anime like One Piece and Fullmetal Alchemist have been part of the scene for decades…
The set-up sees class conflicts continuing into a future where only the rich can afford immortal robot bodies. Our hero, Tetsuro, is an orphan hoping to hitch a ride on Galaxy Express 999 so he can go where such bods are purportedly given out for free. He can’t afford a ticket, so he becomes the bodyguard of lady Maetel in exchange for a seat. Of course, he’s deadly, deadly little moffet, and he serves as her pistol-packing enforcer, too. (The show switches from whimsy to grimness quite freely, as mentioned. And Tetsuro won’t hesitate to mow down bad guys).
The 100 episode series is largely told-in-ones where the two make stops on different planets wrapped in Twilight Zone-esque morality plays. Honestly, stream the first 10 episodes, get a sense of the show, and then just skip to the movie, where Tetsuro learns the true price of robo-immortality.
Featured Image Credit: Toei Animation