Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
When a routine cruise-liner job ends with the Bentenmaru taking on a stowaway princess, Marika gets her first major job as a pirate. The job is to get Princess Gruier Serenity to a legendary golden ghost ship. The problem: someone in the Serenity kingdom doesn't want her getting there. Is Marika captain enough to get the girl to her destination and get some treasure for her troubles? Damn right she is.
The Serenity arc is new territory for Bodacious Space Pirates, not for any profound reason but because it's the first arc that qualifies as an extended arc. Not that you'd know from watching it. At six episodes Gruier's arc is twice the length of any previous arc, but it fairly flies by. It's increasingly apparent that greatness is not to be Pirates' fate, but good clean fun is certainly in the cards.
The arc flying by has nothing to do with the series' pace. It remains resolutely unhurried. Rather it's a simple function of how much there is to enjoy in each episode. The story itself is a classic treasure hunt, with Marika and her upstanding pirate buddies racing a mysterious fleet of warships to a vast store of riches trapped in the unknown reaches of space. Anyone with a little Robert Louis Stevenson under their belts knows the inborn appeal of that particular tale. Pirates approaches the tale with its own brand of laid-back charm though. Before the chase can start it spends a couple of episodes at Marika's school, first checking in on Marika (she's having trouble balancing piracy and school) and then having a little light fun making princess Gruier attend class and contend with Marika's Yacht Club comrades. When the chase begins in earnest the series focuses on the competition, refusing at every turn to villainize Marika's opponents and ending with a twist that is more peace and love than violence and greed. It's all very relaxed and cheerful and optimistic, which while horrifying for fans of bloody piracy is delightful for those tired of darkness and drama.
It's easy to see why director Tatsuo Sato chose to make the series. Faith in humanity is his stock in trade, and easygoing plots aren't exactly alien to him either. He isn't dumb though, and neither is the series itself. Not everyone is sweetness and light all of the time. There's obviously some serious court intrigue behind the dueling treasure-hunters, and the danger posed by Marika's opponents is quite real. Gruier herself is a smidge duplicitous about the nature of the treasure and even Marika partakes in some light (but good-hearted!) betrayal. That said, sweetness and light are definitely the characters' primary modes. The series prefers to apply its brain to things other than the dark depths of the human heart. Often they're little things, like its attention to scientific detail. Perhaps it's petty, but it's nice to see a series that understands the challenges of weightlessness and acknowledges that a room full of treasure would not only be full of nitrogen (for preservation purposes) but would also be uninhabitable because of it. The fate of those treasure rooms is also satisfyingly logical, in addition to being another realistic exception to the series' faith in humanity.
The smartest thing the show does, however, is simply to give Marika the stage. Previous episodes showed her to be a strong, immensely likeable character. But the Golden Ghost Ship mission is her first chance to show what kind of captain she is. Not surprisingly she's a quick-witted, strong-willed, kind-hearted captain. She's a pleasure to watch as she devises a two-part deception to hide her expedition, braves enemy blockades and brutal energy storms and ultimately forces the treasure hunt to a conclusion that no self-respecting pirate would ever condone. Always her greatest weapon is her brain. She stamps out the aggression of her first major space battle without firing a shot and smartly plays the different actors off of each other to bring the whole ghost ship business to her desired conclusion. And she isn't necessarily soft and cuddly while going about it; at one point she stands by her orders to fire even after it becomes clear that the targets are possibly allies. Her final gambit, on the other hand, is about as cuddly as they get—and very Marika-esque: who else would manipulate their opponents so that in the end everyone wins?
This is Marika finally realizing her potential; Marika the leader. The arc's greatest pleasures are probably the moments when we see how she's grown since her first halting steps into piracy: watching how Gruier grows to trust and respect her, seeing her eyes gleam as her captainship is put to the test, noticing the gentle authority of her relationship with the Princess (and anyone really). It's easy to believe the other characters when they claim that her father's blood runs strong. She was born to lead—in her own quiet, unassuming way. There are of course other characters in the show, and the show gives most of them a moment or two to shine: Chiaki discovering a heretofore unknown taste for theatrics, the Bentenmaru crew showing off their specialties, Mami doing a little comic meddling behind the scenes. And the plot of course has its own non-Marika areas of interest (the nature of the treasure being the main one). But Marika dominates.
That'll be a problem for some. An argument could be made that she's too good. That her skills develop too quickly, and that she has no weaknesses and is thus a dull character. And certainly she lacks the vulnerabilities, both emotional and narrative (rarely is there any doubt that she'll beat the odds), that are traditionally used to raise sympathy. But it could also be argued that her emotional toughness and ability to stay one step ahead of everyone (including us sometimes) make her a refreshing change from all of the rescue-bait cuties and vulnerable-on-the-inside tough girls out there. One thing is for sure, if you were to choose between her and, say, anyone from Clannad as a role model for your daughter, you'd almost certainly choose Marika.
If Bodacious Space Pirates has been a little visually lackluster post-intro, this arc goes some ways towards rectifying that. It's filled with fantastical deep-space sights: luridly colored magnetic storms, squads of knife-shaped battleships, battles fought with cinematic sprays of luminescent energy. The ghost ship's emergence, rearing into the universe through radiating explosions of rainbow-colored gravitational energy like some kind of shimmering metallic Moby Dick, is grand spectacle of the most enjoyable sort. And the ship's treasure, which takes the shape of a three-story glassine rose, is a shot of raw, otherworldly beauty. It's true that the characters are still kind of stiff and the score kind of poppily insubstantial (though generally effective). It's also true that the joyous visual invention of the first few episodes never returns. But spectacular visuals take some of the sting out of the loss, and a few such inventions persist (check out the hologrammatic interface for their communications system). And at any rate, by this point we aren't tuning in to see where the series takes its sci-fi world; we're tuning in to see where it takes Marika. And maybe some of her friends.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Lots of great development for Marika; plenty of old-school pirate adventure (in space); surprising attention to scientific detail; just plain loads of fun.
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