Whenever we read an old book or watch an old movie, there’s always that tricky desire to strike a balance between reacting honestly to the ‘text’ — used broadly here to convey the “meat ‘n potatoes” of any given work of art — and analyzing the work by pretending to adopt the viewpoint(s) from which the work of art was created. For instance, should we criticize a novel from the American 1850s for its apparent endorsement of, say, slavery? Surely enough, the values of the time likely saw slavery as simply another means to a functioning society. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest, slavery is obviously abhorrent.
Luckily, Outlaw Star is not that far removed from our present day that it would require us to jump through a number of mental hoops in order for us to accept the series at face value. The original run for the manga began in 1996, and the first episode of the anime adaptation soon followed just a mere two years later. To some extent, it is a little astonishing to some of us that 1998 is actually more than a decade ago. We’ve always viewed the past within the context of the corporate 80s, the kitschy 70s, the social upheavals of the 60s, so on and so forth. Well, with twelve years between us and the 90s, what are we to make of that decade?
Japan’s economy quickly rose to prominence at the start of the 60s and this continued all the way through the 80s. The rest of world marveled at how the small island nation was beginning to rival the West. At times, this astonishment manifested as a latent fear. Films like Gung Ho, for instance, captured a certain sense of cultural unease in the US as Japan’s car industry continued to dominate the market. With this rise of global economic power, so too did the heroic values begin to coalesce around what appeared to be the driving force behind Japan’s success: the salaryman. Distinguished by his “uniform,” i.e. typically a conservative suit and briefcase, the salaryman aesthetic eventually bled over to popular culture, spawning the likes of the Super Sentai.
Unfortunately, the bubble collapsed in 1991. The 90s would soon be referred to as the infamous “Lost Decade,” a time when young people could no longer rely on finding a cushy white collar job right out of college. Economic success had bestowed upon the salaryman an air of superiority, especially when it came to normative values. Great, another boring history lesson, right? In the end, what does all of this mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Having said that, I personally think the historical context of any story provides good food for thought, though it need not necessarily decide the entire meaning of the text. In any case, Outlaw Star is just one of a handful of late 90s anime series with the frontiers of space as a backdrop. More importantly, I think, these series also tended to focus on — at the time — an atypical anime protagonist.
Outlaw Star‘s Gene Starwind is not the type of hero that fades into his uniform when the going gets tough. In fact, he has no uniform; he is uniquely himself. He’s also far removed from the sensitive high school tryhards of our current generation of anime protagonists. Rather, Gene embodies that Other on the fringe of society, eeking out his existence through his own means rather than being subservient to some larger entity. He’s brash, he’s covered in scars, he’s a womanizer and a smooth-talker, he exudes confidence, etc. Most of all, I think he has the sort of individuality that is probably diametrically opposed to someone like the salaryman. He is beholden to nobody but himself and his own values, which is very much unlike a man within a corporate structure. Outlaw Star‘s early episodes can be seen as Gene’s coming-of-age. Like how teens in the West cherish the day they get their first car, Gene’s starship represents his unfettered freedom, the ability to go where ever one pleases. It’s no surprise then that even a spaceship from some undetermined future nevertheless starts up by turning an ignition key, symbolizing a rite of passage analogous to our own personal experiences with cars.
Of course, with that freedom comes a certain loss of innocence. The first loss, interestingly enough, happened years ago when Gene witnessed his father’s death at the hands of space pirates. But while this incident gave our hero a certain fear of spacefaring, it also epitomizes Gene’s Otherness that allows him the luxury to later explore the frontiers of space to his heart’s content. Unlike the rest of us, he has no familial connections that might anchor him to any particular place in time. While a salaryman needlessly toils to “bring home the bacon,” Gene’s outsider status absolves him of any such responsibility. Hilda’s death, then, has to represent Gene’s second loss of innocence, thereby freeing him completely, but how does this event complete the picture? In any case, if we’ll recall, the 90s marked the end of the salaryman’s prominence. It’s likely that within a few years, Japanese popular media and culture began to reflect this shifting of values away from what the salaryman used to embody. Nowadays, we might see them as cranky — sometimes creepy — oyajis on the train. Can I confidently say that Gene Starwind, like Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop, represents a reaction against the salaryman? Probably not, but it is, again, food for thought.
If it’s interesting to wonder how heroes like Gene Starwind and Spike Spiegel came about and who they were supposed to appeal to, it’s also equally interesting to wonder about their demise. Where did the Gene Starwinds and Spike Spiegels of anime go? Why have they given way to the bevy of bland, Mary Sue protagonists — the type that typically attends high school — that now populate the anime landscape? The type of hero that Gene represents isn’t without its negatives. For instance, there’s a certain streak of chauvinism throughout his actions that perhaps today’s heroes are a little less apt to embrace. Plus, that’s not to say that our atypical heroes have disappeared entirely. Someone like Akatsuki Ousawa of Hagure Yuusha no Estetica probably does draw inspiration from the likes of Gene Starwind and Spike Spiegel, but such heroes are few and far between. Plus, Akatsuki Ousawa seems to embody the extremes of what our atypical heroes were about. He is the hyper-womanizer, he is hyper-brash, hyper-confident, so on and so forth. And even then, Ousawa is still a high schooler of some kind. Does his sort say anything about how the current audience of anime now views heroes like Gene?
I think that’s enough for now. Next time, I’ll get into the implications of the space western genre and how this might help us understand Outlaw Star.