Outlaw Star is a beloved classic, though is often lost in the haze of better known series of similar genre (like Cowboy Bebop, most commonly), but now the series has been cleaned and beautifully restored onto Blu-ray, is it worth revisiting?
Before we get to that, a little history. Outlaw Star started off life as a manga series published in Ultra Jump from 1996-1999, where as the anime was made and broadcast in Japan in 1998. Here in the UK it debuted on short-lived TV channel CNX, where it was sadly paired and aired directly after the afore-mentioned Cowboy Bebop in an hour block, thus causing a lot of people to view it far more harshly than it warranted at the time. It has been released a few times on DVD, but it goes without saying that its never looked this good before!
The story is pretty standard fare, with a lot of familiar character types, set in the old space frontier setting. Cool, laid-back gunslinger Gene Starwind and his smart and sarcastic child sidekick, Jim Hawking, run a small business taking odd jobs for people, and end up doing a job for notorious space pirate “Hot Ice” Hilda. After a fight with some local pirates they end up in possession of not only a new experimental starship (which they dub “the Outlaw Star”), but shy and awkward bio-android Melfina, who integrates with the ship and controls its navigation directly. They find out that the ship’s true purpose is to find the “Galactic Leyline”, a place that is said to hold immense treasure, or power, or knowledge… or all three!
Gene, Jim and Melfina begin to travel the stars and soon add silent kimono-wearing assassin “Twilight” Suzuka and dumb and obnoxious but strong catgirl Aisha Clanclan of the alien race known as the Ctarl-Ctarl to their travelling roster. In their travels they come up against several recurring foes, including suave bounty hunter and killer Ronald MacDougall and his narcissist younger brother Harry, a group of assassins known as the Anten Seven which is lead by Darth Vader wannabe Lord Hazanko, and bold and obsessed scientist Nguyen Khan. Not to spoil too much, but all these plotlines and characters converge in the last few episodes, and it really pays off to see all these individual elements get together in search for the prize.
The episodes themselves are often really good, self-contained stories, and at only 26 episodes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome; even a comedy side-step episode revolving around a hot spring planet is actually funny, especially in the English dub (I’ll get to that in the bit). As I alluded to in the above paragraphs, a valid criticism would be that the characters remain vague cookie-cutter character types and never really develop any personalities or backstory. Thankfully, the episodes are often well written enough that you don’t mind the rather predictable personalities because you’re enjoying the story unfolding, or just the general interaction between such … straightforward and contrasting personalities.
Something that is unique on the other hand is the space battles. Now they do contain your normal missiles and lasers, but the ships, including the Outlaw Star itself, have grappler arms on them and often get into weird tests of strength with each other, or rip bits off with them. Now, I don’t know why this became a thing in this universe, but it makes for exciting and interesting space battles at least!
Now there have been a few allusions to Cowboy Bebop, but I’m happy to say they share another thing in common and that’s a great English dub. Not many shows would have this in their review, but each member of the show’s roster is really well cast, the acting is great and the script is sharp. As someone who often (though not always) ends up watching anime in Japanese and subtitled, I think the English voice cast add a lot to the feel and atmosphere and I would recommend it to be viewed this way, though obviously the set includes the Japanese dub with subtitles, should you disagree.
The opening is an exciting tune named “Through the Night” by Masahiko Arimachi, while the first 13 episodes have “Hiru no Tsuki” by Arai Akino as their ending, whereas the second half have “Tsuki no Ie”, also by Ms. Akino. The actual background music is very memorable and catchy, and was composed by Kow Otani, a man who has worked on such properties as Godzilla, Gundam and the classic game Shadow of the Colossus.
Getting to the set itself, it’s a lovely looking box filled with a nice-looking 100-page artbook. The on-disc extras range from the normal clean openings and closings, some design galleries, TV ads and, most interestingly, the “pilot film”, which is actually a two minute promo with footage that never ended up being used when the series went into production proper (including Jim seemingly having a weird pink rabbit hanging around with him, which I guess was dropped entirely!) The picture quality is outstanding, clearly restored carefully with the original film print. With some anime you can’t really see the difference between the formats (apart from blocky subtitle text!) but this is a proper HD makeover.
So, now it’s free of the shadow of Bebop (he says after referencing it a dozen times…), does Outlaw Star stand on its own feet in 2016? Yes and no; a lot of the characters are very shallow and beyond Gene, most don’t get any development at all, just staying within their character archetype, but the actual story-telling is top-notch, as is the animation and the soundtrack, plus it has a top-class English dub, along with the by-no-means-poor Japanese original. It won’t take you on an emotional journey of self discovery, but it will keep you entertained and keep a smile on your face for 26 episodes straight. That’s a feat a lot of shows have failed to pull off, regardless of what decade they come from.
The box looks good on a shelf, and the show looks great on your TV. If you’re a fan of the show already, then this is the best available version of it. If you’re looking for a fun ride that doesn’t outstay its welcome, then I recommend you put your money down and enjoy Outlaw Star.