Outlaw Star. What an anime. Before we begin, I just want to make a note that, sorry, I’ve never seen Cowboy Bebop – the iconic series that’s oft compared to OS for a variety of reasons. It’s animated by the same company (Sunrise) and both shows feature a gang of bounty-hunting space-bounders who end up in sticky and entertaining situations. Look, I’m going to watch Bebop. It’s on my list. I merely apologise for not comparing it to Outlaw Star as much as I should in this review. From what I can glean, however, it seems to very much be OS’ older – and more serious – sibling.
But what is Outlaw Star? What’s it about? The series (or ‘Starward Warrior Knight Outlaw Star‘, or ‘Future Hero Next Generation Outlaw Star‘ to give the anime its fuller – less elegant – names) ran in early 1998, and follows cosmic-wannabe Gene Starwind – your typical, Han Solo-esque antihero who dreams of bigger things. Teamed with brother-in-arms, eleven year-old James ‘Jim’ Hawking, the two end up spiralling off into the galaxy in search of treasure, adventure, and an interstellar prophecy or two. Along the way, the two encounter a slew of different characters; from mysterious samurai to catgirls.
Perhaps unfairly, the show fails to ever shrug off that ‘kid’ feel. The humour is easily digestable by all age groups, the colours throughout are vivid, bold and bright, and overall the show packs that juvenile, boyish kind of charm we all held when we were younger. It’s a space anime, after all. How much more big kid can you get? But Outlaw Star really isn’t for kids. I mean it really isn’t. It’s got swearing, blood and full-frontal nudity at points. It touches on the inner self; who we are, and the pursuit of dreams. To paraphrase a line from the show, ‘Boys have the right to dream. Men have the means to make them real’.
Outlaw Star is cheesy, but it’s so confident in its use of cliche that you don’t really care. Case in point, the episode, ‘Law and Lawlessness’. There’s a shootout between Pirates – the main antagonists – and the Space Force – the police, basically, with Outlaws like Gene straddling the border inbetween. You know Gene is going to side with the Force when they need his help, and you know that, in return, they’ll save our band of sneering Outlaws when the need arises.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a healthy helping of maturity and complex emotion explored within the series, too. Gene may be the copy-and-paste, no-nonsense maverick; in charge of the titular ship. He’s Malcolm Reynolds, he’s Han Solo. But, particularly in the first few episodes, you really feel his fear of space, or his vendetta against the nefarious MacDougall brothers. His backstory is tried-and-tested, sure; he wants retribution. But you see why and how his character became what it did.
Then you take Melfina – constantly questioning who she is, where she came from and for what purpose she was built. It’s like something out of Shinji’s breakdown in Neon Genesis Evangelion. There’s a really surprising amount of philosophy throughout; explored pretty deeply in the show’s climax.
Outlaw Star also does a terrific job in maintaining this overarching plot throughout – the crew’s quest to find the fabled ‘Galactic Leyline’ – while nailing ‘monster of the week’ type episodes. It reminds me very much of ‘Stardust Crusaders’, the third part of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. You really feel these misfits are going to do something spectacular; working toward it slowly, but surely. But in the meantime, you take joy in their brief, one-off encounters and conveniently-abrupt showdowns.
And these bite-sized chunks of explosions and exposition are delicious. The space fights are awesome; the ships are all brightly-coloured and the ‘science talk’ doesn’t make much real world sense (Count how many times the phrase ‘sub-ether’ is used). But who cares? Brian Cox isn’t going to sit down and watch this (though we really hope he would to become even cooler). The use of ‘Grappler ships’ makes for an especially interesting bit of lore; Outlaw Star has it’s own kind of interstellar combat, which makes the dogfights feel more personal, and more ‘punchy’. In fact, the amount of history throughout is pretty exceptional for what would be considered an unremarkable series by many.
Also, representation. We love to see it. And even in a show like this, where Gene seems insistent to refer to any kind of feminine entity as ‘babe’, you get empowerment. Take Aisha Clan-Clan. She starts life as a figure of amusement in the series, but as her character appears more and more, she becomes relied upon for her physical strength, and prowess in battle. Of everyone who could inherit the innate ‘superpower’ of strength, it’s her. She gets her moments to shine, and kicks ass – just wait for the episode, ‘The Strongest Woman in the Universe’. But don’t mention the ‘Hot Springs’ episode. We don’t talk about that one. Not ever.
Suzuka, too, is a downright badass who does what she wants, even if it means leaving the gang for an episode to do something off-screen – no doubt just as cool as what we see. She isn’t dependent on Gene or Jim; frequently playing the wiser one. Hell, she’s a more successful bounty hunter in one episode.
Is Outlaw Star amazing? No, its not. It was never going to be an iconic name in the extensive history of anime, and certainly incapable of holding a candle to Bebop. It’s cheesy, mass-produced, goofy, feelgood Saturday morning ‘ray gun anime’. That’s exactly what it is.
But you know what? I love that. I had a lot of fun with this series; I loved the characters, the humour, the planets and cliche space-villains, the quasi-accurate terminology and the weaponry. All of it. I highly recommend Outlaw Star, in all honesty. It’s not a lot, no. But for what it is, it’s a whole galaxy in which to explore.