Outlaw Star: Freedom on the frontier

“What’s beyond that sea, I wonder?” Thinking this, a youth will finally leave his home behind. “What’s out there? What’s waiting for me?” They leave, merely to find this out. Countless difficulties lie in wait. Despair. The lure of walking the razor’s edge. Hope. Joy. Meeting new friends. Leaving their innocence behind, youths learn, suffer, and come to know themselves. This is a journey. When they conquer a new land, yet another sea is reflected in their eyes. “What’s beyond that sea?” When boys become young men, they begin to think this again. This is a journey.

Let’s build upon last week’s discussion. We previously broached the possibility that the Gene Starwinds of anime might represent a response to the normative devaluing of the salaryman. How might Outlaw Star‘s genre and setting contribute to this theme?

According to Robert Murray Davis’s “The Frontiers of Genre: Science-Fiction Westerns, “…the western’s hero becomes like an other, a man who seems both savage and civilized at once, learning from experience….” There are many things we can take away from just this passage. Regarding the western hero as an Other, nothing is more apparent than Outlaw Star‘s title itself. Another passage of interest: “…the outlaw is not the savage enemy of order or civilization as such but the defender of a particular kind of civilization: the agrarian democracy….” Of course, this passage refers to the outlaws of early American literature, but it does remind us that Gene Starwind is very much a good guy. Our hero can be flaky, lazy, unfocused, a relentless womanizer, etc., but like most anime protagonists, he has a heart of gold; he’s clearly no savage enemy despite his barbarous scars. I am struck more, however, by Gene’s first real “quest” in the series.

The first act of the anime can be a little slow and unexciting as the series goes through the pains of introducing each and every one of its protagonists. It must also explain how Gene comes about owning the Outlaw Star. Once Gene has settled into his new situation, however, he quickly sets his eyes upon the MacDougall brothers, a pair of immoral mercenaries. They, on the other hand, pilot the ship El Dorado, which Gene remembers seeing when pirates attacked and murdered his father. As such, our hero’s first quest is more like a quest for vengeance. Outlaw Star thus evokes that sense of ‘frontier justice,’ i.e. taking matters into your own hands because the Man can’t help you. The phrase ‘frontier justice’ itself captures a sort of contradiction in its union of words. The frontier is unknown, uncharted, untamed, etc. In contrast, justice is orderly, absolute, and (purportedly) fair. This seeming contradiction is embodied in the above-mentioned definition of the western’s hero: “…both savage and civilized at once….”

Everyone wants fairness, but the rules and regulations of society can be stifling. In marrying the two ideas of ‘frontier’ and ‘justice,’ you bend but don’t necessarily break justice to fit your needs. In the world of Outlaw Star, where jurisdiction over the vast expanse of space is ill-defined at best, what hopes would a young man like Gene have in bringing his father’s killers to justice? Why can’t he just take things into his own hands? Of course, not everyone can take things into their own hands. We can’t trust everyone. But again, the western’s hero represents a sort of ideal: “In [both westerns and science fiction stories], mere physical survival involves becoming a special kind of person….” We may not want everyone to become vigilantes, but we wouldn’t have a problem with, say, Robin Hood or Zorro. What about Gene Starwind then?

But what does being an outlaw really mean? Remember the “the agrarian democracy” part from one of the passages above? At first glance, we might not think that this would have anything to do with Outlaw Star or even Japan for that matter, but let’s dig a little deeper: “In identifying with [the outlaw], the [viewer] can indulge sentiments of resentment and rebellion without having to adopt a radically alienated stance against society and its traditional ideology.” Last week, we discussed how the salaryman ideal betrayed a lot of young people as they entered the 90’s, infamously dubbed as the “Lost Decade.” The Japanese education system, from grade school to the baccalaureate level, is one arduous journey of exams, exams, and even more exams. In other words, structure, order, and perhaps more cynically, confinement.

You are told that you can’t be successful unless you do get into a top high school. Even then, you have to put extra time into cram school so that you can get into a top college. And even then, you have to do well enough to land a job at a top corporation. Unfortunately, that job isn’t necessarily secure. Once the Japanese economy started to tank, however, there was no longer Shangri-la at the end of our arduous journey. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Outlaw Star appeals to one’s sense of freedom and independence, i.e. “I don’t need the system; I can make it on my own.” The world beyond rigorous exam systems and corporate jobs thus represents the unknown, the less talked about ‘frontier.’ But even when the future seems uncertain, one rebels by living in the present. James, Gene’s younger business partner, is always exhorting our hero to think pragmatically: “Geez, if nobody gets on your case, you slack off in bed all day!” A little later, he exclaims, “…I don’t think the galaxy’s so neat and tidy that we’ll find a big job just because we go there.” Despite being the youngest character in our cast of misfits, James ironically dispenses with parental advice throughout the series, always prodding Gene to plan ahead. But why should young men like Gene plan ahead?

Haven’t you ever heard your parents say something along the lines of “Listen to me. I’ve been there before. I just don’t want you to suffer through the same hardships that I had to endure.” But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? Recall the quoted passage at the top of this very post: “Leaving their innocence behind, youths learn, suffer, and come to know themselves.” A young person like Gene wants to suffer, because the uniqueness of his or her trials and tribulations will forge his or her character. In following your parents’ advice, there’s the danger of co-opting their dreams. If the salaryman embodies conformity, then the rebellious spirit of Gene’s character represents the opposite: life is a journey, but often a journey to discover one’s sense of self and place in the world (or in Outlaw Star‘s case: the galaxy). There is no journey in the exam system; there’s nothing to discover. You know where you’re going every step of the way, because there is often only one way to go. As a result, perhaps the only meaningful resistance against such an encompassing system is to fail. Failing, of course, doesn’t necessarily have to mean literally getting F’s in school. Failing could be something as simple as just living in the moment, bucking the trend of planning every step of one’s life out.

Finally, recall how the MacDougall brothers are cast as immoral mercenaries. Gene is a mercenary too in the sense that he’s a hired man, i.e. he has no fixed job position. He’s not an ‘Administrative Assistant’ or an ‘Operations Associate.’ Gene is whatever you want him to be, for a price but also to a certain extent. This is what separates the MacDougall brothers and Gene: that “certain extent.” Our hero won’t just do anything for money. For instance, he doesn’t hesitate in telling Melfina to stomp out a mind-controlling cactus (yes, you just read “a mind-controlling cactus”) despite James’ plea that they would stand to lose a lot of money as a result. Gene knows that the cactus is trouble, and he won’t take unnecessary risks just for money. On the other hand, the MacDougall brothers have no such moral qualms. When asked why they so desperately want the Outlaw Star, the younger of the pair confesses, “I don’t ask my employers for reasons.” Everyone needs money; that’s just common sense. At the same time, however, a true outlaw like Gene refuses to become a prisoner to money. Despite being criminals, the MacDougall brothers are really no different from soulless corporations in their pursuit of money. With this in mind, Gene’s quest to avenge his father takes on a whole new light.

In the end, most corporations are beholden to their stockholders. As a result, cost-cutting measures are employed and often with little regard for the salarymen who have long helped grease the wheels of Japan’s economy. Imagine how you would feel as a man who have sacrificed more than the standard eight hours that Americans are accustomed to. In Asian societies, specifically Japan and South Korea, employees never want to be the first to leave even after they have more than fulfilled their official duties. This, of course, comes at the cost of the salaryman’s family, and who should feel the brunt of this more than the young children who often rarely get to see their fathers (a problem perhaps coincidentally reflected by the oft-absent fathers in anime). And for what? Well, one certainly has to put food on the table. But despite all this hard work and loyalty, many companies aren’t shy about “managing staff levels,” aka layoffs. After all, money is the bottom line. This is true of mercenaries like the MacDougall brothers.

Did mercenaries kill Gene’s father because of a personal vendetta? To them, it is just another job. Rob MacDougall, the older of the pair, can’t even recall attacking Gene’s father because he’s taken on so many similar jobs in the past. Whether or not he was responsible isn’t important; what’s important is the rebellion against the over-attachment to money and the evil that this can breed. At the same time, it’s not as though Gene hopes to overthrow the capitalist system or anything. Nevertheless, his character offers a personal resistance against possession, and in a way, it reflects the spirit of labor vs. capital, i.e. the agrarian democracy of the frontier, that is inherent to the conception of the outlaws of westerns. By taking odd jobs to make ends meet, Gene is more of a blue-collar laborer than an office paper-pusher. Again, we revisit the pertinent quote: “In identifying with [the outlaw], the [viewer] can indulge sentiments of resentment and rebellion without having to adopt a radically alienated stance against society and its traditional ideology.” Even though one may blame corporations for his or her father’s suffering (see: Tokyo Story), it is unthinkable to think that one can exact revenge upon these entities since they (often appear to) operate within society’s legal boundaries. In hunting down greedy mercenaries, however, Gene allows one to entertain the idea of fulfilling that taboo fantasy. In other words, this is frontier justice.

Of course, Outlaw Star isn’t just a western; it’s also science fiction. Next week, I’ll take a look at that. In particular, I want to analyze Melfina’s role in the story. Finally, the last installment of these series of Outlaw Star posts will answer the question, “What is the galactic leyline?”


14 thoughts on “Outlaw Star: Freedom on the frontier

  1. I’m really glad I voted for the Outlaw Star articles. This series has been a real treat. What really struck me personally was the idea that Gene wants to go through his own trials & tribulations. Ever since graduating university and not finding a job in my field, I’ve been getting advice from every single adult I talk to on top of my parents. Each conversation pretty much concludes on the same note mentioned above. While I appreciate there help, I just want to go and do my own thing. That’s why I’m attracted not just to sci-fi westerns like Outlaw Star but shows where one of the main character’s goal is independence.

    1. I’m really glad I voted for the Outlaw Star articles. This series has been a real treat.

      That’s cool. The big worry going into an old series is that most people might no longer be interested in rehashing a subject they’ve perhaps discussed to death. Also, there’s just the fact that some young anime fans have never seen Outlaw Star despite the fact that it’s not all that old. I don’t really want to do a blow-by-blow of each of the anime’s episodes, but the result of this is that a lot of people will have no idea what I’m talking about. Oh well, you take the good with the bad. Still, this is why I prefer blogging about anime that is currently airing. It’s not because it’s easier to trash new shows. It’s just that there’s an implicit agreement that both sides have seen the anime and can thus engage in a discussion of it.

      Ever since graduating university and not finding a job in my field, I’ve been getting advice from every single adult I talk to on top of my parents.

      Yeah, I’ve been there before. Last week, I asked where heroes like Gene Starwind had gone. There’s a perception among the older generation in not just Japan but also in the West that parents nowadays are too lenient on their kids. I was watching a documentary about a famous sushi chef, and he recalled the day he pushed his younger son out the door. He told his son something to the effect of “You can no longer come back,” but he didn’t say it with any sort of malice or resentment. He simply wants his son to become independent. The sushi chef then muses that younger Japanese parents are all too willing to accept their children back home with open arms. To be fair, the sushi chef had to leave home when he was nine. It’s difficult not to draw from experience, i.e. “If I can do it, why can’t you?” In fact, it’s human nature to come to such a commonsensical conclusion. On the flip side, what’s wrong with your loving family helping you when times get tough? Do we really end up forging a weaker generation of youths as a result? Anyway, back to my original point, I do wonder if the current trend of high school protagonists represents some sort of safe zone of idealized simplicity. Ah well, that’s enough dull rambling from me.

  2. This has been a really great series of entries. The space western is just such a rich setting, I think. I look forward to what you have to say about the sci-fi elements.

    1. I probably won’t continue. Too much effort for the reward. No, no, it’s not just about the lack of responses. This post got an embarrassingly low number of views. Again, I don’t mind writing posts that get few or no views. After all, I’m still covering Natsuyuki Rendezvous. The difference, however, is that I actually like Natsuyuki Rendezvous. I can do without Outlaw Star.

  3. I was one of those who voted for you to blog Outlaw Star, but I must’ve not thought it very well through because, really, this reminded me of high school in all the wrong ways.

      1. Putting it succinctly, I don’t think this show lent itself very well to your style. But I was also referring to the anime not having aged quite graciously, while still being too young to be appreciated from a historical standpoint.

        1. Putting it succinctly, I don’t think this show lent itself very well to your style.

          I didn’t know my style was limited to a certain subset of anime.

  4. I watched Outlaw star when I was 17 years old. It was the first anime I’d ever watched, and I really enjoyed it. I have since dabbled in anime here and there. I’ve seen Claymore and Full Metal Alchemist in entirety and enjoyed them in one way or another, but anything else I’ve tried I’ve failed to really get into, and fall off in a few episodes. I enjoyed Outlaw Star so much though, that I will occasionally get online and start trying to find someone like me, who loved that show and has suggestions for things like it.

    That’s how I found this article. I literally typed in “Anime like Outlaw Star” and your first article on the series that was prequel to this one was about halfway down the page. I read and very much enjoyed that first article, and this one. It reminded my of why I enjoyed that series so much, and I think it also enlightened me as to why the stuff that’s available doesn’t appeal to me.

    The character model of Gene is exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want insecure high-school students, I want Randian level independence. I want that level of confidence and virility, but equally important I want that element of moral compass and vigilante justice as well… He has to be a good guy. There is a level of believability in Gene’s character, he makes mistakes and he oversteps his own moral code on occasion, and in a way, hates himself for it.

    The fact that I can’t seem to find characters that aren’t the polar opposite of that archetype is probably why I can’t seem to find any anime I like. I decided to comment here because I thought it might be valuable for you to know just how I got to your blog. I find that information important because I don’t really think I’m alone. I think that because of when Outlaw Star aired in the United States, there are a LOT of people like me who enjoyed that show as an introduction and never found their way into anime afterwards, for lack of a good transition. Outlaw Star ran on CN in the United States in 1998, 16 years ago, and here I am still occasionally trying to find someone somewhere on the internet that’s said, “I love outlaw star and this is just like it”.

    Your writings definitely opened my eyes on the undertones of something I had never even considered thinking about that deeply, and I enjoyed reading them. I was immensely disappointed however to hear in these comments that the third part of the series was never written. I was very much looking forward to learning what you felt Melfina represented. I see the date on these articles and realize that convincing you to finish them is probably impossible, but I thought I’d share my experience anyway in an effort to tell my story and possibly hear some answers from someone who’s obviously an expert to my original question to google. This show was, in story arch and character design, exactly what I want in an anime. Where does a person in that position go to get into more of the genre?

    Oh, and pleasepleaseplease finish the third part of this article, even though it’s 2 years old and I sound like a raving lunatic.


    1. I know how you feel. The shows that got me into anime initially? Well, I can’t find stuff like them anymore these days. And I appreciate the kind words. I really do. It’s just that it’s been two years since I wrote about Outlaw Star. As a result, my train of thought on the subject has long derailed. I can’t even properly respond to your comment, so I wouldn’t be able to do the show any justice if I were finish what I had initially planned for the third and fourth entries into the series. The simple truth is that the lukewarm response at the time these posts went up killed my enthusiasm.

  5. Similar to Jeff, I recently came across your writings whilst feeling nostalgic and Googling Outlaw Star. I’m sad this series won’t be finished, but there’s something poetic to that. Just letting you know you’ve gained another fan here. Nothing lukewarm about that, friend!

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