Friday, August 15, 2014

Outlaw Star (1998)

The late 1990s can be considered an anime boom. The arrival of the Internet helped anime fandom spread quickly across North America. At this time three different studios decided to tackle the same concept in very different ways. The concept was the space-western. When the three shows hit North America each of them became popular to varying degrees. Of the three, Outlaw Star didn’t quite have the impact of Cowboy Bebop or Trigun. Does that mean it isn’t worth revisiting? Let’s find out.

On the planet Sentinel 3 Gene Starwind (Robert Wicks) is a problem solver, especially if you need some muscle or shady business conducted. He and his young pal Jim Hawking (Brianne Siddall) are hired by a sexy lady to pick up some cargo and take it to a safe location. Before they know it, they find themselves under attack by pirates and spirited away by the sexy outlaw, “Hot Ice” Hilda (Melissa Williamson). She takes them to her latest prize, an experimental starship called the Outlaw Star. According to Hilda the starship has the ability to find a mysterious treasure called The Galactic Leyline.

Soon Gene and Jim find themselves in charge of the ship, and taking on an unusual crew. First they meet the navigator, a sweet girl named Melfina (Emily Brown), who turns out to be a manufactured human, specifically created to pilot the Outlaw Star. Then they run into a deadly assassin named Twilight Suzuka (Wendee Lee) whose skill with the blade comes in very handy. Then a wild and super strong cat girl named Aisha Clanclan (Leonore Zann) decides to tag along. The ships computer named Gilliiam (G. Gordon Baer) tries to keep the wild crew in line with helpful hints, not that anyone listens to him. Gene is determined to find the Galactic Leyline, but this puts him in direct conflict with every pirate, security space force and outlaw in the system. Will the crew of the Outlaw Star obtain fame and fortune, or will they go down in a blaze of glory?

Good Points:
  • Some creative production design, for mecha, spaceship, alien and weapons
  • A solid mix of thrilling adventures, silly shenanigans, intense action and a dash of drama
  • Some wonderful end credit songs by Akino Arai
Bad Points:
  • The characters are standard genre tropes
  • Loses some of its momentum in the middle of the series
  • Some of the voice acting is a bit rough
If you want a series that delivers action and adventure in traditional space opera format, you can’t go wrong here. While the characters and their arcs are pretty familiar, the whole story is very entertaining. The first and last third of the series has amazing momentum, with top-notch storytelling and editing. But the middle portion does slow down a bit with some goofy side stories. The final result is a treasure hunt filled with action, adventure and fun characters.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The Outlaw Star in dock for repairs.
I used to think Hollywood was the only one that had the problem of different studios releasing the same type of movie within months or years of each other. Remember when Deep Impact and Armageddon came out same year. Or how about when The Abyss, Leviathan and Deepstar 6 all came out within months of each other. Well it turns out anime studios did the same thing. That is how we got Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star all within a year of each other.

While each series ended up being very different from the other, they all shared the basic premise of a space western. Trigun and Cowboy Bebop really embraced the concept. But Outlaw Star is more of a traditional space adventure story that ended up using the concept of a space frontier. Outlaws in this universe aren’t necessarily criminals, but they operate in the fringes of society. Gene doesn’t really kill anyone unless he has to, but he isn’t shy about gunning down a bounty. You get the feeling that the galaxy is a pretty rough place. That the primary way the western feel comes through in this series.

Gene Starwind the only space hero who gets
space sick.
Many of the other elements come right from popular space operas like Star Wars or older anime series. Those looking for pure science fiction may be disappointed. Instead there is an amalgam of sci-fi, fantasy and adventure tropes at work. Magic is used, based on spells from the Tao religion. The space pirates are all Tao sorcerers and they use their magic to distort reality and unleash some pretty devastating attacks.

Another interesting element is a heavy influence of Chinese culture and visuals in the series. During one of the introductory segments (I’ll talk a bit more about those in a minute) we find out that the Chinese spearheaded the push into the wider galaxy. It isn’t surprising to see a heavily Chinese cultural influence in the design of the buildings, starships and human culture in general. For the majority of the series, whenever Gene is in a human controlled area, you can see Chinese lettering on signs, Chinese restaurants and some characters in traditional Chinese dress (like when Aisha works as a waitress during the space race). There is even a criminal underground obviously based on the Triads. This adds a different flavor to the typical Japanese overtones in most anime.

Outlaw Star also avoids the typical AIC look, and actually has a bit of a 1980s style to it. Gene’s long lanky frame is certainly atypical of anime heroes during the 90s. I especially like the creative character deign for the Kei Pirates. There are some seriously bizarre looking weirdoes in that group. But they stand out, so you pretty much recognize them on sight when they show up later in the series.

One of the ornate pirate rocket ships.
The spaceships in the series actually look more like rockets from something like Flash Gordon or classic pulp science fiction. This is a nice throwback, and refreshing compared to some of the very Star Wars influenced starship design other anime used. In addition for going with more of a rocket look, they added huge mechanical arms to the ships that deploy for “grappler combat”. I’m still not sure I buy this concept. It ends up looking a bit goofy when the ships literally wrestle with each other. But I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything like it before.

The sound work in Outlaw Star is equally creative. Everything, from the weapons to the starships, has a unique sound effect. The sound design is like nothing I’ve heard used in any other anime series at the time. Probably the most impressive works is for the Tao magic spells the pirates use against our heroes.

Melfina becomes the navigation system for
the Outlaw Star.
The music for the series is pretty interesting. Koh Otani composed the score, and he goes for a primarily electronic sound with some rock guitars added to the mix. He also adds a bit of old west feel with some tracks that contain harmonica and banjo. Music for Suzuka the Japanese assassin has a traditional Japanese sound, and Aisha’s theme is a bouncy tropical number. A few bluesy and jazzy pieces show up as well. He comes up with a main action theme that he uses a few times. Typical of anime scoring, Otani composed a whole set of music (two CDs worth) and the director placed the tracks where they fit best. A few scenes appear to be scored traditionally, usually key dramatic moments. As a whole it is a fun score that completely fits the series. It is less cohesive than Otani’s other effort that I’m familiar with, the score to Tenchi Muyo 2: Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You get three songs for the series. The rockin’ opening theme Through the Night gets the adventure off to a rollicking start. Just like the series itself, it is a fun piece of J-rock. But most people who’ve seen Outlaw Star remember the lovely end credit pieces performed by Akino Arai. These ballads work wonderfully with her vocal style. Arai wrote and performed them both. For the second half of the season you get the upbeat Tsuki no Ie”. But the first half presents the lovely and sad Hiru no Tsuki which is also used in the series as a song Melfina sings.

Gene talks tough, but "Hot Ice" Hilda just
stares the goons down with her evil eye.
The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag. This is a bit surprising, because anime voice acting really started clicking in the late 1990s. Both Trigun and Cowboy Bebop sport some of the best anime voice acting of the decade. Unfortunately Outlaw Star really seems a bit scattershot. Talented voice actresses Melissa Williamson and Wendee Lee have no problems bringing “Hot Ice” Hilda and “Twilight” Suzuka to life. Ruby Marlowe does a fine job as Melfina. I even like Zann as the wild and wacky Aisha Clanclan (she also was the voice of Rogue in the 1990s animated version of the X-men. She was always my favorite of the female mutants, so I might be biased there).

No, it’s the guys who just seem a little uncertain of the right tone or some of the dialogue. Not all the voice casting seems to fit with the character design. The exception is Brianne Siddall, who does a great job as Jim Hawking. She really nails the youthful exuberance for adventure, as well as Jim’s exasperation with Gene’s antics.

The Macdougal brothers hatch a plan.
But Wicks is a mixed bag as Gene Starwind. A lot of the time he’s got the whole cocky attitude down pat. But other moments, when Gene lets his guard down, is uncertain or nervous, the performance doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure what the issue is, but some episodes work better than others. The main antagonists, the MacDougal brothers, really seem off. The younger brother fares the best, but he goes so over the top sometimes that he even makes the crazy eyed animation look sedate. The older brother just seems to be playing it a little too cool, coming across as bored many times. I won’t say the performances ruin the series, but they may hinder the enjoyment for some folks. But that is why you can always switch to the Japanese audio track on the DVD.

If you see "Twilight" Suzuka coming at you like this
you're dead, you just don't know it yet.
Outlaw Star follows the pulp model of science fiction adventure. It starts things off with action and adventure and pretty much keeps that tone for the whole series. It doesn’t ever get too deep or too silly, but manages to keep things fun the entire time. A lot of this has to do with the script. The first four episodes are a great opening, as Gene and Jim meeting Hot Ice Hilda and get pulled into her scheme to escape with the experimental starship. I love these episodes and wonderful way they just surge forward. The pacing is perfect, with laughs, action and thrills all coming at regular intervals. It’s really a great opening for an adventure series.

Jim may be a kid, but he's the most grounded
member of this crazy crew.
After that, the series settles into a general arc that leads to the heroes racing against the pirates to find the Galactic Leyline. Along the way they meet new allies, new enemies and get into all kinds of scrapes. Some of these episodes are pure filler and don’t do much to add to the overarching plot. Even in those cases there is usually some funny dialogue or an interesting action scene to enjoy. The series does have a few silly episodes, like the one where Gene has to dress as a female wrestler, or the episode where the crew is so broke they end up taking odd jobs, and end up facing a cactus that can control minds (yeah you read that right). Then you get the journey to the resort planet. It is filled with silly humor, lots of fan service and a villain so inept you’d think he was played by Wile E. Coyote.

But some seriously stellar episodes balance things out, such as the exciting space race two-parter, or the intense escape from the high gravity prison. There is even a bittersweet episode where Jim meets a very cute girl who turns out to be an assassin sent to kill Gene. Romantics better get their hankies ready for that one.

The crew of the Outlaw Star  is ready for adventure!
One of really unique elements of the story construction is the way the series delivers background information about universe the story takes place in. Each episode starts with a narrator delving into an aspect of the episode we are about to watch. He defines outlaws, and their role in the universe, gives background on how humans ended up expanding into the galaxy, talks about the special interstellar drives used on the ships, and even tells us about The Strongest Woman in the Universe competition that ends up playing a big part in one of the funnier episodes in the series. These short pre-credit moments give us a bit of grounding, so the episode itself doesn’t have to slow down to explain this kind of stuff. And if you want to ignore these moments, just wait till you hear the rockin’ theme song and you know the action is going to kick in.

If there is any weak point to the story it is the ending of Outlaw Star. The Macguffin that everyone is running around the galaxy for ends up being the Achilles heal of the series. The Galactic Leyline is so mysterious, so touted, that you begin to get this idea in your head of something impossibly grand and amazing. No matter what the animators and writers come up with, it won’t be nearly as cool as what you come up with. When the Leyline is revealed it is disappointing, no way around it. What I found humorous is that one pre-credit info dumps actually warns viewers that the legend of the Leyline may actually be bigger than the actual leyline itself. Yeah, I think even the writers knew they wrote themselves into a corner with this one.

Grappler arms: useful tools, or just plain goofy?
The final confrontation between Gene’s crew and the space pirates and MacDougal brothers ends up being really predictable. It takes away from the tension when the viewer can predict nearly all the story beats for the last couple episodes. In a way it fits with the pulp style of the series. We know our heroes have character immunity; none of them can really die, because we have to leave things open for a sequel. But I wish the ending was bit more creative, with maybe a surprise or two for us old timers who read too many adventure stories.

Even with those script problems Outlaw Star is just a fun and entertaining show. I really like the characters, even if they are a bit stock when they start out. As the show goes along the interaction between them keeps things interesting and we learn a bit more about each of them. I especially like how Gene starts out the series getting nauseated each time they go into space. He has to operate starship weapons and keep hoping he won't hurl all over the control panel. As the series goes along, he gets used to space travel, until the crew can't tease him about it any more. But for the most part, each character fits an anime or sci-fi trope. Gene is the rash hot head. Melfina is the naive and lost synthetic girl (inspired by Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion no doubt). Suzuka is the quiet and calm assassin. You get the picture. Of all the characters, only Gene and Melfina grow and change as the series progresses. They really aren’t the same people we started out with at the beginning of the series (something that the beloved Cowboy Bebop doesn’t manage with anyone except Faye Valentine – and that is only if you squint).

Fans of Firefly may recognize this scene.
One of the most interesting things about Outlaw Star is that the series was HUGE influence on Joss Whedon’s cowboy space series Firefly. Not only did Whedon use the heavy Chinese influence in his show, but he even took Melfina’s introduction and mimicked it almost shot for shot for his introduction to River. You can even make some comparisons with Gene and Mal. It was a neat homage to an anime series that kinda got forgotten over the years. But for me, Outlaw Star is a journey well worth taking, and has characters I enjoy returning to and has some visuals and storylines that I won’t soon forget.

For those of you who need your anime cat girl fix, here are several shots of everyone's favorite Ctarl Ctarl: Aisha Clanclan

Aisha wants you to meet Mr. Fist!
Aisha takes on the strongest women in the universe in
disguise as the mysterious Firecat.
Aisha teases Suzuka by calling her Suze. 
Aisha may be wacky, but when she gets angry
all bets are off!
Proud of her abilities and her species, Aisha often
boasts about her feats the proud Ctarl Ctarl people.
During a low point, Aisha is reduced to serving drinks
in a cute Chinese style uniform.
Aisha may be a cat, but even she can be clumsy.
Nyan Cat gets Nom Noms.
No matter what the dangers, Aisha is always ready
and raring to go.


  1. Yeah, when I got about midway through your review I thought, that sounds a bit like Firefly. Another SF series along that line is Blake's 7 though they are less western and more like pirates in space.

    It sounds like Outlaw Star is something I might like to watch at least in parts. I'm getting slowly acclimated to some of this anime, though as you said a lot of them have similar tropes and shared ideas either among themselves or other SF tales. That said though, I realize all SF and/or stories have had their own influences. It's not like Star Wars is totally original :)

    One of my biggest things to overcome with anime, however, is the voice acting and some of the exaggerated over-the-top humor. I think they've gotten better with it, but they could continue to work on that aspect, imo. I'd also like to see a bit more diversification in the art style of the characters too--get away from the triangle shaped heads. I think it would be great if some anime creator would get the rights to some SF or fantasy books and create an anime around that. Something like an anime Ringworld, The Forever Wars, Samuel R. Delany's Nova, Moorcock's Elric series, Octavia Butler's Xeongenesis series, and there are so many others I'd like to see spun into an anime series. *Ahem* even if they have to be slightly inspired by them.

    A cactus that controls minds? Sounds like something right outta Star Trek: TOS, or at least Lost in Space :)

    1. Glad to hear you're finding some series to enjoy. There are some really great stories out there in the anime realm, and because they are freed up of budget issues for special effects and the like they can go really wild with the design and action scenes.

      I agree that after the huge AIC revolution of the late 90s anime character design is pretty much stuck in a rut. That design style is pretty much the default for all modern anime. Every once in a while you see some minor changes, but the variety of character design seems relegated to stuff pre 1995 or so. There are a few exceptions. Some creators really have a look and they aren't going to change it any time soon. Miyazaki is one and so is Leiji. Both started in the 70s so that may be why their character designs look so different.

      I keep hoping anime will tackle a solid sci-fi concept or series. There have a been a few over the years. But they mostly stick with the tried and true giant mechs/cyber punk/ or space opera formulas. There is a movie called "Wings of Hommianese" that is pretty much "The Right Stuff" on an alien world. It is an interesting and incredibly detailed film. They even invented their own language for one of the other countries in the movie. It was hard to find for a while, and the print used for the DVD was pretty soft, and a lot of the detail was lost. But it was supposed to get a better release a few years back.

      There was another series that had a kind of huge sweeping classic space opera style. I never saw it, but it had a ton of grew reviews when it came out. It is called "Crest of the Stars" and its sequel "Banner of the Stars".

      And yeah the mind control cactus really reminded me of TOS too. Gotta admit it made me laugh.

  2. Giving viewers what they expect from a genre while offering something original is a difficult balance. The slew of TV Westerns in the late-50s/early-60s faced a similar challenge. You do seem to have a grasp of the material.

    1. Yeah it is a challenge. I commend the writers of this show for really striking the balance and keeping it all fun. It really could have turned out dull or so by the numbers as to be boring.

      This is a problem with sequels too. How familiar to you keep it without it getting too boring and predictable. Change too much and the fans are going to rise up. :)