Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Bodacious Space Pirates
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Deep in the future and deep in space, the planet Umi no Akehoshi lies like a blue, utopian jewel. Though officially ruled by the invading Galactic Empire, it has been allowed to remain independent and its citizens live in peace and prosperity. It has an odd quirk of history though: during its battle for independence centuries ago, it supplemented its interstellar navy by granting privateering licenses to ruffians who raided its enemies. Some of those licenses survive to this day, passed from pirate to heir over the generations. One of them, specifically the one granted to the crew of the Bentenmaru, is just now in the process of being passed on. Its recipient is an unsuspecting high-school student by the name of Marika Katou. Medic Misa and navigator Kane leave the ship to scope her out, followed by hordes of less-than-savory types curious about the ship's potential new captain. Confronted with such a momentous decision, Marika does what any girl would do: go space-sailing on the Odette II, an ancient schooner manned by her schoolmates. Nothing like a little interstellar cruise to clear the mind. So long as you aren't attacked by murderous space-cutthroats, that is.
If there's an award for most misleading name, Bodacious Space Pirates gets it. There's very little bodaciousness to be found in Bodacious Space Pirates. Some miniskirts (the original light novel went by the name Miniskirt Space Pirates) and many girls, but very little fan-service. Instead it tells an interesting story with a novel premise and fun characters. Scandalous!
Pirates is an easygoing sci-fi adventure, content to rely on its cliché-retardant cast and intelligent action to paper over its gaps in momentum. It begins by throwing Marika into the complicated and chaotic world of space pirating, charging through a first episode that ably balances mystery and danger with humor and character. It almost immediately backs off, however, pushing back action and intrigue to give Marika room to breathe and make her decision. That would almost be a disappointment if it wasn't for Marika. As the girl caught up in a whirlwind of outside events, she's the calm at the center of the storm—an unflappable optimist with a quick, decisive mind and a knack for leadership. She takes the news of her piratical heritage with appropriate surprise and confusion but also curiosity and caution: she is intrigued by the opportunity Misa and Kane bring to her, but isn't about to be forced into anything without first considering the situation and her own feelings. It is almost by the force of her personality that the series slows down, and certainly by its force that it steers clear of angst and muddy introspection.
As fun as it is watching Marika drifting towards her destiny—and the series' dry humor and penchant for colorful supporting characters ensure that it's rarely less than fun—it's still a relief when the Odette II arc starts to heat up. It's our chance to see what Marika is capable of, and the show surely knows it. The arc ends in a grand naval duel that nicely highlights her strategic skills as well as the agile mind and calm courage hidden behind her airhead facade. We see the confidence she inspires in her classmates, and the parental regard taking hold in her pirate/teacher mentors.
Even more instructive, however, is what the battle reveals about the series itself. Which is mainly that it has a good head on its shoulders. That shouldn't be a surprise; it takes more than dumb luck to carve a charming sci-fi premise from European naval history. Just as it shouldn't be a surprise that a series with a penchant for European naval history would favor strategy over visceral thrills, and sound strategy at that. But it is a surprise. After the Glass Fleets and Heroic Ages of the world, it's a positive shock to see a space opera whose tension arises from the unfolding of plan and counter-plan rather than zipping lasers and manly heroism (though it has its share of the former). It's a show that appreciates the need for painstaking preparation and logistical control as well as flexibility in a battle, that takes the time to think through the tactical applications of its sci-fi ideas. The replacement of the crippling first-pass broadside with a crippling cyber-attack, the vulnerability of digitally-raised students to analog counterattacks—the battle is filled with touches that reveal a series that can be as thoughtful and imaginative as it is enjoyable.
Military tactics aren't the only things the series applies thought and imagination to. The first episode is full of cool technological extrapolations: visual search engines, holographic classroom aids, interactive ads that leap from magazine to television—all used with the casual matter-of-factness with which we use things like smart phones and tablets. It is a darned seductive vision of the future, especially given how beautiful and clean Marika's planet is. It is also a useful reference point when talking about the series' decline. And yes, for all its estimable entertainment value, there is a palpable decline. After the first few episodes the series grows... duller, perhaps. That isn't exactly the right word; it's a sensation that is difficult to describe succinctly: a flatness, a tameness, a loss of vibrancy.
At first it's tempting to blame it on the reduction in the series' momentum, but that isn't really it. Many a series has geared down and stayed vibrant. There are other problems one notices as the series wears on—the unrealistic over-niceness of the cast, the lurching shifts when the series switches story-arcs—but they aren't causal, more symptomatic. No, the story isn't the problem. Which brings us back to that seductive future vision. The instructive thing about it is that it disappears. After the first couple of episodes, poof, it's gone. Or mostly gone, at least. The beautiful surveys of Marika's futuristic hometown, the clever future advertising, the playful extension of current tech trends into the future—all gone. Only those technologies that have a direct bearing on the story continue on: electronic defenses and weapons, navigation systems, spaceships and guns.
Why is that important? Because it's part of a pattern. The series' stylistic invention also goes AWOL at about the same time. The quality of art and animation stays consistent (which is to say fine, or in the case of spaceships and other CG objects, spectacular), and the score goes merrily on its way, spreading pleasant stringed instrumentation and nice electronic beats hither and yon. But the invention is gone. Scenes are flatly and expediently staged, communicating whatever needs communicating and nothing more. Events lead one into the next with the stodgy continuity of a 50s television series. There is no lingering on whimsically imagined details of future life, no humorous jumps in action, no explanatory monologues staged as hallucinatory dreams. No fun with POV, no impishly composed shots, no dramatic angles, no interesting framing, no fantastical settings. Just the story, presented with a winning easiness but decidedly less personality. The first episodes transformed the novels into a cinematic world; later episodes just tell the novels' story with visuals.
Why that is, is a mystery. Director Tatsuo Sato is a battle-scarred veteran with a hard-won grasp of pacing, a liking for laid-back material, and an unobtrusive cinematic sensibility. This should be as easy as breathing to him (and for the first couple of episodes it is). Maybe he's putting all his effort into Pirates' sister series Lagrange—a theory that their opposite trajectories lends credence to—but really, who's to say. Whatever the reason, Sato should be glad for Marika and her piratical journey. Such is the power of their combined charm and intelligence that they can do just fine without him.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Smart but breezy sci-fi adventure with an exceptionally strong and likeable female lead.
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