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Author: Mackenzie

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April 30th, 2008: Outlaw Star Retrospective - Part One

Outlaw Star is difficult to describe succinctly at first glance.

It isn't the most mature series out there, nor is it the most immature. It's definitely an action cartoon with serious storylines and a heavy dosage of gunfire and death. Yet the show is also frequently laced with light-hearted slapstick comedy and subtle, well-timed wordplay. There are background arcs and a general sense of story progression, but the show is also episodic in the style of its more famous "space western" brother Cowboy Bebop. The series can't even decide if it's science fiction or fantasy, implementing everything from advanced technology to magic chants and spells. More confusing is how Gene Starwind, the twenty-year-old main character, seems less mature at times than his eleven-year-old partner, Jim Hawking.

But all of this makes sense in the grander context of the show.

The series is about the transformation of a child into an adult. That's a confusing time for most teenagers: a period where you're supposedly advancing into an adult, yet you still feel entrenched in the innocence of childhood. The show is about finding your identity and deciding exactly what you will be as you become an adult, as well as what the consequences of your actions will be when you do reach maturity.

As we watch Gene Starwind struggle between childhood and adulthood, and as we listen to the philosophical monologues that introduce most of the episodes, it seems right that the show itself is trying to figure out what it wants to be. In the end - and despite a couple of stumbles along the way (the infamous "hot springs episode" is a good example) - the show finds its identity and forges a conclusion that proves to be simultaneously satisfying and leaves us wanting more.

While the plotline reflects the themes of the show and subtly inserts them into the background for us to notice upon re-viewing, the series as a whole strives to be pure entertainment. It gives us a heavy helping of all kinds of comedy along with many, many fights both on the ground and in the farthest reaches of space. It helps that the story is simple to describe, but retains enough layers of depth to stay interesting. The plot revolves around Gene Starwind's adventure to find the mythical Galactic Leyline - the "Shangri-La of space" - as well as his attempts to decipher both the highly-advanced spaceship that he dubs the "Outlaw Star" and the near-human android Melfina who seems designed to operate the ship. Along the way he picks up multiple crewmembers (more than one of whom ultimately wants to kill him) and generally tries to make ends meet. Problem is, all kinds of enemies want to take Melfina and the ship, which he inherited from its mysterious previous "owner", who passes away early in the series. (I won't spoil things by saying who). Not to mention that he has a past more traumatic than many Gundam pilots'.

The show shines the most when it remains down to earth, and doesn't attempt to be fantastical. Gene and his crew's struggle to find work and get paid is always entertaining to watch. The realization that the most advanced ship in the galaxy also happens to be the most expensive and most difficult to arm gives the show an extra dose of reality. The characters' well-designed mix of strengths, weaknesses, and quirks mesh well, but remain distinct. Many of the characters have mysterious pasts, such as assassin and Outlaw Star crewmember "Twilight" Suzuka, while others are definitely not what they seem to be at first. (That character WILL surprise you). The show strides on determinedly, patiently revealing everyone's secrets - giving bonuses to the more attentive viewers, while not alienating the more casual ones.

From a technical standpoint, the show nearly holds up to modern shows. Just try to say the opening space battle between "Hot Ice" Hilda and the Kei pirates doesn't take your breath away. The battle animation stays fluid and doesn't disappoint, and it's also notable that Outlaw Star was one of the last Japanese anime to be hand-colored, giving it a retro appearance ala Cowboy Bebop. This comes at the cost of non-battle scenes, which have some rough edges, but in general the animation manages to remain solid overall despite the occasional slip-up and cut corner.

The character designs are generally appealing. Gene Starwind looks caught between a teenager and an adult character design, which is fitting. Jim Hawking projects spunkiness, innocence, but also intelligence. Melfina reflects the innocent, naive archetype her personality quickly shows. Suzuka is mature, smart, and enigmatic. Aisha Clan-Clan looks wild and energetic as the series' catgirl. It should go without saying that all five characters are physically attractive, and the art direction puts more physical flaws on the villains and side characters. (Apart from Gene's heavy scarring, but that serves to make him more "rugged" rather than hideous).

The Japanese actors are impeccible - every one of them captures every naunce of their characters and quickly switches between all of their characters' emotions without fail. Even the one-shot cannon fodder sounds good. The English dub, while strong for the time it was recorded, is a mixed bag by today's standards. Robert Wicks' Gene sounds a little too old, but Wicks ably handles every line with unforgettable style. Aisha Clan-Clan actually sounds superior in English compared to her Japanese actress; Lenore Zann sounds enjoyably feline in ways the Japanese actress doesn't.

Other voices sound like prototypes for later, more modern and well-known characters. Brienne Siddall's (credited as Ian Hawk) Jim Hawking sounds like an early version of her Tsukasa character from .hack//SIGN. Wendee Lee's Suzuka sounds like an early version of her Yorouchi voice from Bleach. The most obvious example is Mary Elizabeth McGlynn's (Melissa Williamson) Hilda, who sounds extremely close to her Motoko Kusanagi. But despite my familiarity with the latter voice, Hilda is perhaps the best vocal performance here (and McGlynn DOES get to experiment with her voice elsewhere in the series). Finally, the dub actors for the villainous McDougall Brothers manage to capture every ounce of deviousness and insanity, although some may be turned off by Steve Staley's (Steve Cannon) take on the younger brother.

The worst voice by far is Emilie Brown's Melfina, which seems to be Brown's version of a Stepford Wife. I don't know what Wendee Lee (the English director) and Brown were thinking when they recorded Melfina this way. Bad delivery, a horribly cracked and forced voice, Brown's obvious disinterest in the character, and finally the feeling that they used the best of some very bad takes (especially early on) combine to turn dubbed Melfina into a train wreck.

Ironically, the dub represents that theme from the series: it was recorded when dubs were beginning to grow out of the awkward mid-to-late 90's stage into the professional, excellent performances most dubs have today. If you like dubs and think you can tolerate a Stepford Melfina, by all means watch the dub just to see the beginnings of where the "modern" dub came from. If you'd rather hear less raw acting but are willing to put up with boring, fuzzy subtitles, watch the Japanese.

The only affordable edition of Outlaw Star available today is the Anime Legends Complete Collection boxset, easily identifible because of it being emblazoned in full red. While the box says it contains three DVDs, it actually contains six, so don't raise any red flags when you see how many DVDs there actually are; the collection is completely legit. Extras are sparse in this edition. There's the prerequisite cover and image galleries, textless versions of the opening and closing (the OP, 'Through The Night', is a must-listen), and various previews. Altogether, not much. But then again, I don't buy series for the extras, I only wanted the series, so I was satisfied despite the lack of special extras.

Regardless of whether you're a Toonami fan or not, this show is worth at least a curious look, due to its high story rewards and excellent entertainment value. However, if you like sci-fi, the other two entires in the "space western trinity" (Trigun and Cowboy Bebop), or just Toonami itself, you may enjoy this show even more. If you don't like dubs then this show will not change your mind - stick to the subs if that is how you feel.

I give Outlaw Star a 4 out of 5, with points taken off for a mixed dub and minor hiccups - slight flaws marring an otherwise superb package.

Go to Part Two.

 

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