Arcadia of My Youth and the Limits of Being Cool

Arcadia of My Youth is an extravagant movie. Even in a medium not particularly known for its subtlety, the thing hits all-time highs of being overwrought. It seems like it can’t go five minutes without someone making a tearful speech about not losing hope, someone making a heroic sacrifice, or a giant, aeronautically improbable space ship crashing into something while people yell at each other. It’s a constant, almost bludgeoning string of emotional highs, but enough to show why its protagonist, Space Pirate Captain Harlock (in his second or third iteration by this point) is such an icon. It’s also a little morally iffy.

Anyway, the story, so far as it goes, is that in the distant future, humanity has lost a war to the alien Illumidus Empire. Harlock returns from duty to Earth to find it occupied. With the help of the engineer Tochiro and the merchant Emereldas, he gets in touch with a nascent resistance movement. Things go poorly, and the bunch of them wind up in exile on the spaceship Arcadia, pledging to live a life entirely for themselves as space pirates.

Harlock is kind of a cool guy: his rugged individualism and utterly defiant personality are 80s action hero bread-and-butter. He always acts according to his principles no matter what suffering they bring upon him. Which does raise the question of what, exactly, his principles are.

This is where things get a tad weird. Ostensibly, it’s about liberating the Earth and protecting innocent lives (much of the middle act is even devoted to him going out of his way to help another conquered planet). But the tone of the movie frames things somewhat differently: that Harlock is a hero, not because he values life and acts as in a self-sacrificing manner per-se, but because he acts with a sense of honour and duty and deliberately seeks out daring acts of courage.

It’s something which really blows up in the worst part of the movie: for reasons which are ill-explained, we get an extended flashback to the life of his ancestor, Phantom F. Harlock II (this is one of those stories where ancestors/descendants are portrayed as being more or less the same dude), a WWII German fighter pilot. As we find out, he doesn’t believe in the cause of the war, but still fights for his country out of a sense of duty, or at least weary resignation. The movie presents this as being very tragically noble of him, a great man pulled down into a conflict that is beneath him. It sidesteps the idea that maybe the conflict in question had serious moral stakes that just couldn’t be brushed aside in favour of higher intentions – the sort that would make the image of a ‘hero’ flying a swastika-painted plane kinda morally dissonant.

That subplot adds a sour complexion to the more anodyne space opera stuff, and at the very least makes the morality discomfitingly ambiguous for a movie that wants to function so emotively: the Illumidus are bad, less because they are oppressors or embody any sort of wicked ideology, but more because they humiliate Harlock. The antagonistic general Zeda is redeemed at the end not because of a change of heart, but because he, unique amongst the villains, seeks out an honourable duel with Harlock and so gives him an appropriate out.

Suffering for the sake of what you believe in, even under strong persecution, is a notion which should be familiar to Christians, but not in this manner. The Crucifixion was many things, but it was not an honourable death. It was a radical self-emptying act of love on Christ’s part which was the exact opposite of pride, where “he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phillipians 2:8) The Christian life is one where we must necessarily be emptied of our own vainglory and righteousness so that we can turn to God.

Moreover, we’re discouraged from being too cool about it. We pray “lead us not into temptation” because we know we are weak and how easily we can break when our faith and obedience are seriously tested. When trials do come, we pray for the grace to deal with them (and the grace to repent if we do fall), but we don’t actively seek them out as a way of showing how righteous or great we are.

Arcadia of My Youth is a celebration of heroism of a sort. It’s just a rather pagan sort of heroism.

Josh W

Josh’s academic perambulations have taken him from the isle of English literature all the way over to the distant realm of Biblical criticism by way of philosophy and theology. When not geeking out over those subjects he can often be found geeking out over video games, science fiction, and all things animated.

One thought on “Arcadia of My Youth and the Limits of Being Cool

  1. I’ve not seen the movie, but I appreciate your take on it, It’s quite a common principle inherited from medieval Japan, and it’s taken for granted a lot in Japanese media that the ethics and morality of a character are implicit because they think the morality is universally held, and maybe this might have been more true when the film was created than today. You can definitely see the movie’s age.

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