Outlaw Star: Where did the Gene Starwinds of anime go?

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.


27 Replies to “Outlaw Star: Where did the Gene Starwinds of anime go?”

  1. You think this is worth to check out or watch ? I’m a cowboy bebop fan, such a classic anime. Thanks for the posts and suggestion.

        1. After I finish Outlaw Star, I’ll do another poll where people can select from five shows. Those five shows will be picked randomly because I just want the challenge of watching and writing about something I may not normally care about.

    1. @Ryheart
      It’s a fine show to watch, but it has aged roughly and hews really closely to the Hero’s Journey story archetype. It is interesting however to see several plot points and threads that appear in later Sunrise works, like Tiger & Bunny.

      1. Yeah I sneak peeked the opening and first ep and I can tell it’s those adventure type anime. Though I probably watch a few more eps to see the interesting plot points you were talking about.

    1. I must concur. It’s interesting to think of the individualistic wanderer as a character archetype out of favour with modern-day anime, but it’s undeniably true.

      You mention that lead character of this type are not without their own issues, and I agree… but what does that say about Blandsnooze McTimid the archetypal second-year high school student? What are his positive qualities as a protagonist and why do so many people apparently want to become him over Spike Spiegel?

      1. I don’t know if people necessarily want to be Blandsnooze McTimid over Spike Spiegel. Plus, Spike represented the top of his game. To be fair, maybe you would want to compare him to someone like Clannad‘s Tomoya (not that I think he’s the best, but he always gets brought up). In any case, this topic would probably require more than a simple comment to tease out a satisfying answer. My gut feeling at the moment though? I think Blandsnooze McTimids have a sort of blank-slate-like quality to them that makes it easier to project yourself onto. Spike is Spike. I can aspire to be like him, but I can’t pretend as though he’s me. Plus, Spike would really be out of place in a high school!

  2. You could argue that Kamina of Gurren Lagann is akin to both Gene Starwind and Spike Spiegel. The major difference is that, while Gene and Spike show self-doubt throughout their respective series, Kamina shows almost none of this.

  3. “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.”

    Maybe not that much of a stretch though, as Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop were worked on somewhat simultaneously (Outlaw Star started a season earlier, so the first run of Bebop ran concurrently with the second half of OS), and featured a decent amount of cross-pollination of staffs.

    Perhaps part of why I keep returning to OS as an old favorite is since so much of anime these days features teenaged boy protagonists, and, well, I just don’t like those terribly much.

    1. Perhaps part of why I keep returning to OS as an old favorite is since so much of anime these days features teenaged boy protagonists, and, well, I just don’t like those terribly much.

      Ah, but they love you so. Anyway, I didn’t mention this in the post because it would’ve been irrelevant to the topic, but good lord, OS is garish looking. It’s like a colorblind person coordinated everything. Just strong saturated hues everywhere. Characters ain’t got no problems wearing purple and yellow together.

      1. I thought the same thing about C and its incredibly unpleasant Cyan/Yellow/Magenta trio with maximum saturation as some sort of statement. I get that some things are printed with those three inks (I don’t think money is, but hey – C never seemed to actually understand its own metaphors in the first place), but that’s no defense for one of the ugliest aesthetic styles in recent memory. Purple sneakers, damnit. Purple sneakers!

        1. Yes. That. C had some of the most baffling errors of perspective I’ve seen since, well… Arcana Famiglia. Also, tiny heads and extendo-necks. Top it off with a liberal dose of uncanny valley CGI using animations that would put Rob the Robot to shame and you have the series of my retinas’ discontent.

          What’s really tragic is that I like 3D animation when it’s used for projects like Appleseed, Vexille, or Fireball Charming. Most of the times it fails in an anime are those where it’s been hastily crowbarred in by people who don’t seem to understand the basic principles of animation (namely movement in arcs, anticipation, follow-through to simulate weight, and secondary motion). It takes a deliberate effort to pick out well-crafted CG cars in an anime, but start throwing down creepy off-model doll people with amateur animation cycles that interpolate at a different framerate than the 2D stills and the viewers are going to notice in a very negative way.

          1. I think the problem is that animators often use the 3-D effect for its own sake rather than seeing it as just another tool in the bag. Like how people often say that the best referee is the one you don’t notice, the best special effect should blend seamlessly into the visual narrative. After all, the 3-D effect itself is nothing more than a representation; if I can recognize it as a representation, there’s a sense that it has failed, no? Of course, this is hardly an absolute, but a viewer should not be able to sit there and go “Look how that 3-D object stands out from the rest of the scene!”

            Ironically, the most pertinent quote on the subject comes from George Lucas himself: “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Oh how the times have changed….

  4. Or it could be a possible shift in attitude. I want to think that the influx of high school protagonists is the need to go back to a time where things were simpler and what most people worried about: getting the grades, getting a girlfriend/boyfriend, trying to save the world as The Chosen One, turning into a magical girl, & maybe get to visit outer space. You know, the usual.

  5. What annoys me more is that a good majority of high school anime are failing on a fundamental level considering how incredibly out of touch with reality their depicitons are, now repeat that ad nauseam, and I’m left with something that makes my eyes roll to the point of chronic diziness. Sure, school life is different in Japan, but not so much as to a be a sugarcoated fantasy. Shit is boring, seriously.

    Given that I was underwhelmed with Outlaw Star, I’d take a Gene Starwind any day of the week over Mr. Blank Slate whose only purpose in life is to search for a personality.

    1. Well, to play devil’s advocate, I’m not sure if high school anime necessarily wants to be in touch with reality. A sugar-coated fantasy is probably right up their alley.

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