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Anime Reviews: Outlaw Star
Outlaw Star is a fast and furious ride well-suited for newcomers to anime, but its age is showing and its thin story is stretched far longer than necessary.
Title: Outlaw Star a.k.a. Seihou Bukyou Outlaw Star
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 1/8/1998 to 6/25/1998
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, mild language, brief partial nudity)
Summary: On the backwater planet of Sentinel III, the rambunctious Gene Starwind and his child prodigy assistant, Jim Hawking, run a jack-of-all-trades business in order to get by. When offered a bodyguard job for a beautiful young woman, they (especially Gene) jump at the chance, only to find there's more to the job than meets the eye--the young woman is actually an infamous outlaw called Hot-Ice Hilda, and her quarry is an inactive bio-android named Melfina. However, hot on Hilda's trail are the Kei Pirates, who can utilize the mystic force known as Tao Magic and are also seeking the bio-android. Melfina's purpose is to interface with a top-secret spaceship in order to find a legendary treasure trove--the Galactic Leyline--and Hilda will stop at nothing to reach it before the pirates do. With the possibility of fame and riches, as well as the expanses of space, before them, Gene and Jim tag along for the adventure of their lives.
The Good: Fun and inventive setting; fast-paced; serves as a good starting point for anime newbies; colorful and iconic cast
The Bad: Inconsistent art and animation; spins its wheels often; mysteriously unmemorable
The Ugly: Whoever designed many of these spaceships has to have been drunk
This has been a long time coming, methinks. As part of the Holy Space Westerns Released in 1998 Trinity, I've already talked about Outlaw Star's close relatives, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, but this is the one that's eluded me, and the reason why is hard to explain. If you're like me and started watching anime in the late 90s and early 2000s, then you're likely already familiar with Outlaw Star--it aired on Toonami alongside Dragonball Z and Gundam Wing, and it was the first of the Holy Space Westerns Released in 1998 Trinity we experienced, and even to this day, those who saw it have fond memories of it. But then, something strange happens:
When I ask them what they liked about the series or which scenes were their favorite, they either take a long time to think about it or simply don't remember. And when I started to chide them, I found myself in the same situation. What did I like about this show? What was my favorite scene? And this struck me as being especially disturbing, as I've seen the series several times before that, but despite it all, Outlaw Star managed to slither out of my consciousness each time. I've watched it yet again in preparation for this review, but I need to work fast before it sneaks away again. Let's hurry up and discuss its good points before I forget about them!
First of all, the setting of Outlaw Star is inventive and interesting, combining Chinese aesthetics and mysticism with Wild West frontier imagery against the backdrop of deep space--of course, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop would do something very similar, but Outlaw Star was first to the punch (Firefly fans, eat your heart out). Each new location is wondrous in its own way, and creates an experience where you rarely see the same thing twice. Moreso than the other 1998 Trinity titles, outer space plays a big role in the setting, and the various factions that inhabit it--the Space Forces, the pirates, and the outlaws--make it feel colorful and alive, but to be fair, the setting's not the only reason for that.
The series itself just moves at a very fast pace. Before a scene can begin to drag out, a split-second transition accompanied by the sound of a gunshot quickly moves us to another relevant scene, skipping back and forth as needed; the result is a breakneck-speed presentation that keeps the action coming fast, hard, and loud. Nary a moment is wasted, and each episode is packed with action and various events, ensuring that boredom stays far away. This serves two purposes: First, obviously, it keeps the viewer invested and keeps them excited for the action ahead. Always a good thing. But the second purpose is a bit more interesting:
As mentioned earlier, Outlaw Star came along pretty early in my, and many others', anime fandom experience, and slipping into its narrative was quick and easy, and I can guarantee that it was due to the show's fast pace--at the time, Dragonball Z had begun to fall into its snail's-pace doldrums, and Gundam Wing was always boring to the point of tears, so this kind of "Let's move it, go go go!" pacing in an anime was a welcome departure. And thus, we were sucked in. It's almost like Toonami knew what they were doing when they brought on this series, despite it needing to be heavily censored--they knew the brisk pace would keep us coming back. And it worked.
I haven't even elaborated on the characters, even! And they're arguably the best thing about the show! Even to this day, a great many anime fans fondly remember the reckless playboy antics of Gene, Jim's frustration with said antics, the gentle kindness of Melfina, the intimidating serenity of Twilight Suzuka, and the animalistic tantrums of Aisha Clan-Clan. The ship's computer, Gilliam, is another beloved character (in spite of just being an AI), and the series' large selection of villains are no slouch either, running the gamut from cold and intimidating to tragic and sympathetic. Even when everything else about the series was foggy in my head, the characters easily stood out and have always been memorable. In the good way.
Now, seeing as the series is about 16 years old (boy, do I feel old), it's inevitable that, unless your budget is ludicrous, aging becomes an issue. Series like Cowboy Bebop and Vision of Escaflowne have so far managed to age extremely well, but Outlaw Star has not fared so well. Now, there are times when the series looks great, with vibrant colors and clean character designs (such as in the screenshots!), but other times, the characters become undetailed, muddy messes barely resembling themselves, and the backgrounds become indistinct blotches of color and rushed masses of lights and buildings--it's all very inconsistent. The animation itself is no better, occasionally being near movie-quality and then, in the next scene, be choppy and nearly nonexistent. It's pretty frustrating.
Another thing that frustrates me is that the story drags at an unbearable pace, going nowhere like a truck stuck in the mud. Now, like I said before, the scenes move quickly and there's a lot of action, but if you look at the story itself, it makes next to no progress between episodes 6 and 20--for the most part, it's a sequence of Jim-bugs-Gene-to-take-a-job-and-so-they-go episodes that reveal some neat elements of the setting, but fail to serve the narrative. Outlaw Star really should have aimed for 13 episodes instead of 26, because half the time it feels like they're just wasting time so that they can save the big climax for episode 26. Get ready for those somewhat-tangentially-related filler episodes!
My final gripe with the series is also the most mysterious: As I mentioned in the introduction, something about Outlaw Star makes it strangely unmemorable, despite all of its iconic imagery and characters. Everything about the story just seems to slip away after you've finished watching; it's not even that the plot is bad (it's actually quite interesting), but it never stuck with me. I very distinctly remember loving the episode where the crew goes to the water planet to retrieve a huge treasure, but I couldn't for the life of me remember why they went, what the treasure was, what happened once they got there, or how it ended. That is, until my recent rewatching of the series, but only time will tell if it sticks around this time. And it's not just me, either--others have shared the sentiment of "Yeah, I liked Outlaw Star, but I don't remember much about it," and something about the series seems to make it prone to be forgotten. I just can't explain it.
But hey, I can't be too hard on Outlaw Star. Despite its faults and the fact that it feels so temporal, I had a great time every time I saw it, and this most recent viewing was no different. And since it's a great starting point for those just getting into anime, I can't not recommend it, especially to them. Just be warned ahead of time that, while it will likely slingshot your enjoyment of the medium to greater heights, the details of the journey will fade long before the fond memories of the fun time you had will.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10. Its visuals are inconsistent and the story feels pointlessly stretched out to twice its intended length, but Outlaw Star's creative universe, fast-paced action, and iconic characters make it a great starting point for new fans of the medium.