Sunday, July 19, 2009

You better get ready - Outlaw Star

Trends are weird things. In the late 90’s Japanese animation jumped on a trend that seems a bit odd. Three different shows were made that combined traditional American Westerns and sci-fi trappings. One of these shows, “Cowboy Bebop” is still considered one of the best animated televisions series out of Japan. The other two, “Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” enjoyed success, especially in the US when they were released and still have a pretty solid fan base now.

I decided to take a look at all three series, and see what made them work, or didn’t work. The first one is one is probably the least known, “Outlaw Star.

In most ways Outlaw Star is the most traditional of the three series. It is a straight forward space opera, with bizarre aliens, strange worlds and adventures around every corner. The basic plot is a treasure hunt, with our heroes racing against a group of pirates to seize the Galactic Leyline.

For me the focus of “Outlaw Star” was the adventure. You get pulled into the plot and tune in to see what happens next. Most of the time, the show’s writers did a good job coming up with engaging clues to the next stage of the hunt, or throwing in a particularly dangerous obstacle. The fun was in seeing what the crew would do next.

When it comes to the crew, “Outlaw Star” plays it safe. You get a solid set of character tropes that you’ve seen in just about any adventure story (animated or not). The lead is Gene Starwind (I guessing it sound a lot like Luke Skywalker on purpose). He’s the hotheaded, cocky leader. He acts tough but he’s got a heart of gold. Then you’ve got the kid brother character, Jim, who’s young but has a real mind for strategy and mechanics. There’s the resident robot-girl character, named Melfina. This type of character turns up a lot in any sci-fi anime series. Typically she’s soft spoken, wonders why she was made and has a mysterious past. There’s the deadly assassin, Suzuka, who was sent to kill Gene early in the series but ends up being part of the crew. She doesn’t talk much, but her sword is nearly unstoppable. Finally there is the cat-girl (another anime favorite), Aisha. She’s spazzy, super strong and is often guided by her instincts. While this can lead to problems, more often it ends up saving one of the crew members.

What’s great about using characters that are familiar, is that you don’t have to flesh them out too much. In the first few minutes, just from their appearance and dialogue, you know what kind of character you’re dealing with. This allows “Outlaw Star” to throw much of it’s early episodes into getting the story started with a bang. For me, those first few episodes are some of the best, with space pirates after Gene, Jim and Melfina, and a new twist at the end of each episode. It all leads to the trio stealing the experimental ship, the Outlaw Star and getting their first solid clue to the Galactic Leyline.

Of course the unfortunate side effect of shallow characters is that the only way to keep things interesting is based more on the plot. The writers have to keep throwing in twists and turns, because you can’t really spend time developing the characters. In fact Gene and Melfina are the only ones that change in the story. By the end Gene is basically the same guy, but now he’s more experienced and little less rash. Melfina knows why she was made and has come to grips with being synthetic (not really a robot per se, but “not of woman born” either).

This leads to some hiccups along the way. There are a few episodes in the middle of the show that just don’t work. Most of these have nothing to do with the search for the treasure, or dodging the pirates. To keep the ship going, Gene needs money, so he ends up taking on some jobs along the way. These are usually the types of jobs that no one else will do, like hunting a sewer monster. Or maybe it’s a contest where the prize is a bunch of cash, like the intergalactic race episode.

These feel added on or slow because there is no danger. We know that Gene and the crew won’t get killed by some sewer monster before the end of the story. If someone does get killed it will be during the quest and by one of the major villains. That’s just the way it is in adventure stories. So these detours don’t work too well. There are a few exceptions. The space race is a solid episode, which keeps things fast and fun. Again you know that Gene can’t get killed on the way, but it doesn’t mean he’ll win either. The other one is played for laughs where Gene enters a woman’s wrestling match to win easy money. Of course it goes horribly wrong.

The other issue is build up. As the story goes along for 28 episodes: each clue is picked up, pirates are encountered and defeated, some characters are injured, captured or worse, and it all comes down to the final treasure. The longer this goes on, the more people talk up the treasure and the more people that end up after it (and doing vicious things to get it), you start to have expectations of what the Leyline is. This build up can end up killing your ending, because if the treasure doesn’t measure up with what you’ve been selling, well the audience is going to feel let down. This is the case with the Galactic Leyline. When you get to the end you just look at the screen and say, “That’s it?” It was a bit better with the second viewing, because I found myself just enjoying the ride. However I ended up disappointed with the ending.

“Outlaw Star” is a good example of how to do an adventure story right. The use of stock characters gets the plot moving right off the bat. All the good episodes threw in a curve or obstacle that kept you guessing if the heroes would make it to the end. The show never took itself deadly serious, and injected plenty of humor and fun. It’s not my favorite of the three shows I’m going to look at, but it was the most fun.

Have you seen “Outlaw Star”? What did you think of it? What is your favorite adventure story? Did it use stock characters, or did it manage to use well rounded characters? Is momentum key in making a good adventure story?

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