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In the year 4699 the human race has colonized the stars, but also created a lot of space junk in the process. In the Nantucket Nebula, Young Lucky Luck seeks out the famous Captain Ahab to join his team of crack whale hunters. (“Whale” in this case referring to derelict space ships and “whale hunter” referring to the independent salvage teams which recover and scavenge from them.) Though Lucky is ultimately successful, an ulterior motive is afoot: Captain Ahab and his ship Lady Whisker are desperately needed by the citizens of planet Moad, whose rebellion against the all-powerful Federation has led to the deployment of the Federation's newest and most powerful warship: the white whale-shaped ship known as Moby Dick. But Ahab himself has a past with that ship, one that he'd rather forget but cannot.
Meanwhile, the android Dew has been taken from his original survey assignment and altered in some unknown way by what might be Moby Dick itself. Picked up by Ahab's crew as part of a salvage operation, he becomes their newest crew member. But his purpose remains unclear, even to himself.
Like the recently-released Gankutsuou, Hakugei is a distant-future sci-fi reinterpretation of one of the great novels of 19th century Western literature, in this case Herman Melville's classic tale of whaling and one man's destructive obsession with his nemesis. Unlike Gankutsuou, Hakugei is a completely different animal from its original. It does share an emphasis on whaling (of a sort) and features a peg-legged Captain Ahab who has issues with something named Moby Dick, but beyond that the only real similarities are a character who bears a resemblance to the tattooed harpooner Queequeg and a narrator who joins Ahab's crew at the beginning of the story.
The biggest and most obvious difference is in the tone. While Melville's novel was a serious, very realistic, and often philosophical story replete with exceptional (and sometimes excessive) detail about the practice of whaling, this series is much more a light-hearted, enthusiastic action romp which skims over details and ignores physical realities when they're inconvenient. (One can go gallivanting around in the vacuum of space protected only by a spray-on coating?) Ahab's personality is also substantially different. Here he is an easy-going outlaw who smiles a lot and relishes both fights and life in general; he only gets serious when the issues of Moby Dick and Lucky's other secret come up, and unlike Melville's Ahab he clearly tried to put the whole Moby Dick incident behind him. The first volume does go a good job of showing how the original encounter has still deeply affected him, however, so perhaps the darker and more serious Ahab we know from Melville's novel will show up in future volumes.
Evaluated solely as a stand-alone piece, Hakugei fares well as a sci-fi adventure tale in the spirit of Outlaw Star. The cast beyond Ahab is a typical anime collection of misfits: the little kid who acts older than his age, the speed freak, the scientist computer geek, the huge muscle-bound guy of limited vocabulary who eats anything (even plates!), the fat cook, the sullen, elitist sword specialist, a lively doctor who always wears armor, an android looking for his purpose, and a newcomer kid who's something other than what he appears to be but wins a position as an apprentice through sheer determination. As is often the case in such stories, the free-wheeling blending of individual talents is what makes the crew so effective that their team of (originally) eight is regarded as the elite of the whale-hunter crews in a profession where crew sizes of 30+ are the norm. By the end of the first volume, though, none of the characters beyond Ahab have had a chance to show much depth. At this point most are just basic archetypes.
Although Hakugei dates to 1997, it looks older. The painted background artistry is cluttered and busy but also has the kind of worn look rarely seen anymore in this age of digital rendering and animation. While this works well to give ships and derelicts a run-down feel, it doesn't look sharp or impressive compared even to other series from the same era. Ahab has the full-blown classic pirate look going for him, down even to a mechanical parrot, and other core characters all have distinctive looks, but the artistic detail isn't sharp in the designs. Ship designs also have a rough, flat, and unexciting look to them, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a series which more heavily uses “highlight” still shots. Action scenes use typical short cuts so heavily that none of the fights have much of a dynamic feel about them, and even in some regular scenes the animation can be rough and stiff. While the artistry and animation aren't bad enough to turn anyone off just on those merits, this isn't a series that's going to “wow” anyone with its visuals.
Much of the soundtrack is also a throwback, with music used to back many scenes sounding like something from a stereotypical '80s action series. While it fares better – even well - in some spots, it is the series' weakest aspect. The opener is forgettable, while the pleasant ending theme “Yakusoku” is a much stronger adult contemporary-style number.
ADV's English dub also fares much better, though some might quibble about how different some of the key performances are from the originals. Kira Vincent Davis's rendition of Lucky gives the character a raspy child's voice compared to the more effeminate voice offered by the seiyuu, but for various reasons this proves to be the right call as the volume wears on. John Swasey portrays Ahab in full-blown stereotypical pirate captain fashion compared to the deeper and more resonating voice of the seiyuu, but the English interpretation feels much more accurate given that the series has gone to great pains to draw and characterize Ahab as a classic Western pirate captain. (And, let's face it, there's really no way to do a classic Western pirate captain in Japanese.) Other roles and performance qualities match up reasonably well. The English script takes some liberties, the most obvious involving an incident near the beginning of episode 4 where a couple of off-color jokes told by Atre (the kid), whose humor wouldn't have survived the translation (as one can see from looking at the subtitles), were completely rewritten. Ahab's dialogue is also restyled into typical pirate speech patterns, while in other places things are described with basically the same meaning but entirely different words in the English script compared to the subtitles. Those looking for a close-to-literal dub job won't find it here, but none of the essential meaning is changed.
In addition to the five episodes, ADV packs in an assortment of mostly-standard but still numerous extras. Viewers will find clean opener and closer, character sketches, and production artwork in addition to company previews and a Next Volume preview. Also included is a lexicon which elaborates on several items which come up in these five episodes (although it doesn't really say anything that isn't in the series itself) and brief Character Bios on all the significant cast members. Fair warning, these bios do contain a spoiler about Lucky's big secret, so don't peruse them until after you've seen the fourth episode if you want to be surprised.
The first volume of Hakugei takes a few episodes to establish the setting and the addition of Lucky and Dew to Ahab's crew before ultimately setting them off in the direction of Moad and an encounter with Moby Dick, so this volume can be looked upon as merely the set-up for the true meat of the story. If you're looking for a faithful adaptation of Melville's novel then this series may disappoint you, as it plays out exactly like one would expect an Anime Insider “What If Moby Dick Were Made As An Anime” bit to look, but if you'd settle for a fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure series which won't wow you on artistic or technical merits then Hakugei may well fit your bill.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : C
Music : C-
+ Respectable writing as a stand-alone work, solid English voice work.
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