Review for Outlaw Star Collector's Edition
It’s been an odd journey to this point. Outlaw Star was going to be All the Anime’s second release. To that point, all that the English speaking world had seen of Outlaw Star was the Bandai release on DVD, which as you might expect from an early anime DVD was rather an average release, barely a step up above VHS quality. At that point, Japan had just re-mastered the show on DVD, and All the Anime were going to take advantage of that cleaned up audio and video, and release the definitive Outlaw Star. But it got delayed for about a year as All the Anime tried to get the release right (They have an admirable policy of getting it right first time instead of getting it out fast, and they do tend to fix their mistakes too). The problem was that by the time All the Anime released Outlaw Star on DVD, it had just come out on Blu-ray in Japan. You know anime fans; they want the two birds in the bush, as well as the one in the hand.
Anyway, two and a half years on, we’re getting Outlaw Star on Blu-ray as well, and I get to take a look. Now the re-mastered DVD was one of the finest examples of a classic anime on that format, and I do wonder just how much better this Blu-ray could be. Then again, Outlaw Star is a vintage show from the age of cel and paint anime. It was shot on actual film. No faffing around with up-scales here. And pity our poor American friends, who are still waiting for an Outlaw Star re-release on any format from Funimation.
Gene Starwind is a superlative bounty hunter in a future age. He’s brave, reckless and highly skilled, and has a keen eye for the ladies. He’s also got an ego to match, and he should be renowned throughout known space. The only problem is that he has a phobia about space travel stemming from a trauma in his childhood. So he’s confined to grabbing bounties on the world of Sentinel III, and working odd jobs with his partner Jim Hawking. All of that changes when they are hired as bodyguards by an Outlaw named Hilda who’s also looking for parts for her spaceship. That would seem pretty normal, except her ship is the Outlaw Star, the most advanced ship in the galaxy, and the component she needs to make the ship operational is a naked girl in a suitcase. Suddenly they’re thrown into a galactic mystery with pirates, outlaws, police, aliens and assassins on their tails.
All 26 episodes of Outlaw Star are presented across four discs from All the Anime.
1. Outlaw World
2. World of Desires
3. Into Burning Space
4. When the Hot Ice Melts
5. The Beast Girl, Ready to Pounce
6. The Beautiful Assassin
7. Creeping Evil
8. Forced Departure
9. A Journey of Adventure! Huh?
10. Gathering for the Space Race
11. Adrift in Subspace
12. Mortal Combat with the El Dorado
13. Advance Guard from Another World
14. Final Countdown
15. The Seven Emerge
16. Demon of the Water Planet
17. Between Life and Machine
18. The Strongest Woman in the Universe
19. Law and Lawlessness
20. Cats and Girls and Spaceships
21. The Grave of the Dragon
22. Gravity Jailbreak
23. Tenrei, the Hot Spring Planet
24. Cutting the Galactic Leyline
25. Maze of Despair
26. Return to Space
Outlaw Star gets a 4:3 pillarboxed 1080p transfer on these Blu-ray discs. I was stunned by the clarity and quality of transfer that the show got on the DVD when I reviewed it two years ago. This Blu-ray blows that out of the water, and this might just be the best transfer of a vintage anime on the high definition format to date. You can forget shows like Nadia of the Blue Water and Cowboy Bebop, the sheer clarity, detail, the rich and bold colours, and the smoothness of the animation is leagues ahead, and Outlaw Star challenges theatrical presentations like Akira and the Ghibli movies. They must have gone to the original film source, and spent some serious money on restoring it before striking the Blu-ray master. The show looks pin sharp and brand new.
Outlaw Star is an ink and cel animation, and that does tell in some of the limitations. Cowboy Bebop just a year later would meld CG and 2D animation to create its future world, but here Outlaw Star is a strictly ink and paint affair throughout, but it still manages a cast of memorable characters, with some great designs, the future world design is imaginative and epic in scope, the action sequences are fluidly and energetically animated. You do get the odd shortcut where budgets have to be trimmed, but that’s no less true of anime today, and you can forgive the odd occasion where characters drift off model, as it was practically impossible to fix back then for home video release.
The images in this review were kindly supplied by All the Anime.
The Outlaw Star Blu-ray offers audio in PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. I went with the original Japanese audio, and it was a very enjoyable experience. The audio comes across clearly enough, and given the uncompressed format, it sounds fantastic, the action sequences have impact, the music drives the story well, and the dialogue is clear throughout. I gave the English dub a try and it’s very much of its time.
The DVDs had a couple of issues, namely a couple of minor audio dropouts in the Japanese track, and the inability to show several subtitles and captions on screen at any one time (a notable problem in episode 23). This is all fixed for the Blu-ray, the sound is fine, and you get the dialogue and the captions translated at the start of the swimsuit episode.
The extras will be familiar from the DVD, but they’re in a slightly different format this time around, with the image gallery split four ways, and it looks like there’s a little more too (I spotted the Japanese Blu-ray Commercial in the promos).
The Pilot Film lasts 1.56. You get two textless closings, and two textless openings. The Character Design Gallery 1 (6:47), Character Design Gallery 2 (6:35), Mechanical Design Gallery (5:35), and Character Color Setting Gallery (5:42), are all slideshows. You get around 4¼ minutes of TV Commercials in two chunks. All of the extras are in HD.
I haven’t seen the physical extras (100-page artbook) or the packaging that go with this release to comment.
This is my second time watching Outlaw Star, and it’s just as much fun as the first time, although my appreciation of it is beginning to shift a little. Here’s a little cut and paste from my previous review to be getting on with.
Outlaw Star is a reminder of a different time in anime, the start of the first DVD boom that I now look back on as a golden age, when anime creators still had Japanese prime time TV to aim for, broader audiences to reach, and the latitude to take chances with their creations. Today anime seems produced to order by committee, ticking off the checklist of clichés in order to satisfy the target otaku demographic. It’s all about the fan service. There is fan service in Outlaw Star, there’s a hot springs episode, there’s a cat girl, and a wee bit of nudity too. But it is the least of its parts, not the whole point of the show. Outlaw Star is rougher around the edges, unafraid to take chances, and a whole lot of fun because of it.
Inevitably comparisons are going to be made with Cowboy Bebop. After all, both shows are on the surface about a motley crew adventuring in space, both shows have an over-reaching arc interwoven with stand alone episodes, and both shows were made barely a couple of years apart. Such comparisons are going to be disappointing though. Cowboy Bebop was a perfect storm, great characters, brilliant writing, awesome music, stunning animation, and stand alone episodes that were the equal of, if not exceeding in quality the fantastic main storyline. Cowboy Bebop was stunning television. Compared to that, Outlaw Star is merely a very good anime show, and I have to say that it does show its age after 15 odd years.
Outlaw Star’s writing is adequate, the overarching story is very interesting, but the standalone episodes tend not to match that quality, and even detract from the main story, it doesn’t make the best use of its characters, and the animation is average, the music forgettable. Just don’t make the same mistake I did of comparing the two.
Outlaw Star does create a fantastic and consistent future world, and most episodes start with a prologue expounding on its finer points, whether it’s the difference between the Space Forces, Pirates, and Outlaws, or faster than light drives, to the various types of aliens, or more specific character biographies. It’s very nice way of painting this universe in broad strokes, before the episode itself gets down to the nitty-gritty. The story kicks off in grand style introducing the main character Gene Starwind, a cross between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, a sort of naive rogue bounty hunter with a fear of space travel, and his partner the young genius Jim Hawking.
They wind up being hired by an Outlaw named Hilda to protect her from a group of pirates, and recover a bit of technology that will help her pilot the galaxy’s most advanced starship. That bit of technology happens to be a girl named Melfina, who when plugged into the ship (naked in a flotation tank), serves as its navigation system. The ship, later dubbed the Outlaw Star, and Melfina have been created to reach the legendary Galactic Leyline. Melfina knows nothing of her past, of who she is, while the legends of the Galactic Leyline offer much in the way of riches and power, and it’s no surprise that everyone is after it, and the Outlaw Star with which they can obtain it.
Cue the Kei Pirates and the Anten Seven assassins, who will stop at nothing to gain this power, and a couple of ruthless outlaws in the form of the MacDougall brothers Ron and Harry. Thrown in the Space Forces and a mad scientist and you can see why Gene has to get over his fear of space travel pretty quick so that he can keep his promise to Melfina to discover her past. Along the way they pick up an alien Ctarl-Ctarl girl named Aisha Clanclan, who serves as the cat-girl quotient in the show. She’s less cute and moe however, and more super-strong and single-minded. There’s also the assassin Suzuka, who’s initially hired to assassinate Gene’s sponsor (and gay stereotype) Fred Luo, but sticks around when she decides that Gene’s adventures are more interesting than her usual line of work, and when she fails to kill him in accordance with her nickname of Twilight.
Another aspect of the show that I liked was the use of Grappler ships, with spaceships fighting each other with robotic arms as well as missiles and laser beams. It fulfils the mecha requirements of any futuristic anime, but it also seems like a fantasy extrapolation of what was then the Shuttle program, where NASA’s space shuttles used to go into orbit with a robotic arm to assist with repairs and the ISS construction.
The show progresses with the back and forth jockeying between the MacDougalls, the Pirates, and the crew of the Outlaw Star (made all the more interesting when psychopath Harry MacDougall actually falls in love with Melfina), all the way to the end of the show, where these forces converge on the Galactic Leyline and secrets become revealed, in a three episode conclusion that has a little homage to Star Trek the Motion Picture. It’s a great story, comes together well, somehow melds future technology with ancient aliens, Tao powers and magic spells, and still holds the attention and entertains.
The problem comes with the standalone episodes, which aren’t up to the standard of the main storyline, and vary in quality from the good to the mundane. One problem with the show is that for an Outlaw with the most advanced starship at his command, he and his friends spend a fair bit of time in one system, and a lot of that on one planet. They escape Sentinel III, but wind up needing repairs to the ship and in debt, so Gene and Jim set up their odd-jobs/bounty hunting business on Heifong, and the scenery does tend to get a little tedious in the middle half of the show. Moments of excitement do arise, and it isn’t as if the Kei Pirates or the MacDougalls have given up. But the fun episodes are interspersed with episodes about Aisha getting a job in pest control, a spacebound Die Hard clone, a pirate looking for treasure and apparently quoting Gold Roger from One Piece, the future version of MMA where Aisha enters a fighting tournament against Fred Luo’s betrothed, and the episode where Jim falls in love.
The good episodes among these are fun to watch, but not so much the weaker efforts, and regardless of how good they are, you’re always left wondering what’s happening with the search for the Leyline. And as I mentioned, the show doesn’t make good use of all of its characters. It makes a big deal about introducing the Anten Seven assassins, and then promptly forgets about them for ten episodes. While crazy Harry gets a lot of development, the same isn’t true for his brother Ron, and even among the crew of the Outlaw Star, Aisha rarely seems more than a single note, mascot character, Chewbacca to Gene’s Han Solo, while Suzuka is barely used at all.
Still Outlaw Star is fun to watch, and it’s made with a broad audience appeal, a refreshing lack of clichés, and a rough and ready style that you just don’t see in anime these days. I have a lot of time for anime of this vintage, and it makes a welcome change from the mainstream otaku fan-service deluge that we usually get.
But what of the Blu-ray? This second time watching the show, I was very much aware in advance of the Galactic Leyline story arc, and it was a little less fulfilling, venturing into the esoteric and metaphysical, whereas I actually had more appreciation of the standalone episodes. Sure, there are still weak episodes interspersed among the strong ones, but there seemed to be fewer of them this time around. Familiarity with the characters makes it easier to enjoy even the comparatively weak ones. I guess this means Outlaw Star is maturing with each viewing, which so few anime are capable of. This is one show that will be served well by re-watches. The Blu-ray itself is fantastic. The few little niggles that the DVD release had, with its subtitling, the odd audio glitch, have all been sorted for the Blu-ray, while in terms of AV quality, this is the best vintage anime TV show I have so far seen on this format. It is pristine, it is colourful, it is wonderfully animated, and it is a show that you simply must have. Now if only they’d fulfil the promise of the final scene, and make another series!