Anime Retrospectives is ComicsVerse’s series on anime that ended prior to the story’s true conclusion. 

The term “cult classic” might be overused. In today’s media landscape, nearly everything reaches that status. Almost every show has a second life in streaming, whether it was popular when it aired live or not. This leads people to throw around the term “cult classic” quite a lot. None the less, it is a term which certainly applies to OUTLAW STAR. OUTLAW STAR just may owe all of its popularity to how unique it is. Imagine a show that has the fantastical space opera elements of STAR WARS, the western feel of FIREFLY, and the devil-may-care action of COWBOY BEBOP. Throw in some magic for good measure and you have a show that stands out from the other anime around it. OUTLAW STAR mixes elements of sci-fi, western, and fantasy in a way which gives it versatility in its storytelling.

And yet despite this versatility, the interesting setting, and the wealth of characters, OUTLAW STAR ended after just one 26 episode season. This is truly unjust. If any anime deserves another season, it’s OUTLAW STAR.

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This Show Has A Bit of Everything

Okay, maybe not everything, but it’s a show with a lot going for it. OUTLAW STAR contains so many genres that it sort of stands alone. While this does make the show versatile, it isn’t always a great thing. The show is doing so much at once that it may, at times, be doing too much. In fact, this may have contributed to its dismal popularity in Japan when it was first released in 1998.

The manga, written by Takehiko Ito, was moderately successful. But when it came to the anime, people didn’t connect with it. Maybe this is because of OUTLAW STAR’s unique mix of genres. Some people who gravitate toward sci-fi, enjoy a setting which depicts a possible future as realistically as possible, like COWBOY BEBOP, or BLADE RUNNER. For those people, the magical elements of OUTLAW STAR might be a turn-off. Same thing for people who take interest in fantasy.

For whatever reason, it took OUTLAW STAR a while to catch on with its audience. While OUTLAW STAR was deemed a failure in Japan, in the United States it was an instant hit.  In 2002, when it began airing on Adult Swim, it was immediately the highest rated show for its time slot. Bandai’s North American division has even listed OUTLAW STAR as one of its top five most successful anime properties. However, the popularity in America came too late. The show had already been deemed a failure by the end of its run in 1999, and no second season was ever made.

So What’s OUTLAW STAR About Already?

Melfina is found inside a box
They even find a girl in a box, just like FIREFLY! | Image: Funimation

OUTLAW STAR takes place during a fictional time period in humanity’s future. Mankind has spread across the stars. As new colonies rapidly formed, pirates, assassins, and outlaws began to threaten the peace. To create order, the Earth Federation established four empires: USSA, Einhorn, Piotr, and Tenpa. However, these empires soon broke down, leading to inevitable lawlessness. Humans also met new alien life, most notably the Ctarl Ctarl, a race of cat-like humanoids.

The story begins with Gene Starwind and his 11-year-old business partner, Jim Hawking, running a sort of jack-of-all-trades shop. Using this outlet, an outlaw named Hilda hires them as her bodyguards. Hilda soon reveals that she has stolen the most advanced ship in the universe from a group called the Kei pirates. She also stole an android from them named Melfina, who functions as a sort of key for the ship. In the ensuing battle, Hilda is killed; Gene, Jim, and Melfina are left as sole owners of this stolen ship which Gene names The Outlaw Star.

Before she dies, Hilda reveals to the trio that the ship’s true purpose is to locate “The Galactic Leyline,” which is said to be a source of some great treasure. Because of that, Gene and Jim become the targets for a host of bad guys who want the ship for themselves. Now on the run, they must fight both to stay alive and to keep the ship afloat. Along the way, they pick up a crew, including “Twilight” Suzuka, a contract killer, and Aisha Clanclan, a Ctarl Ctarl warrior. They also meet dangerous enemies including the MacDougall Brothers, who had killed Gene’s father years before.

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Seems Complicated

There are a lot of strange names and concepts in OUTLAW STAR that can be difficult to absorb. That’s why one of OUTLAW STAR’s best features is its cold opens. Before the opening credit sequence of each episode of OUTLAW STAR, a narrator will introduce a new concept to the audience. For example, if the episode in question heavily involves the material Dragonite, and there were brief mentions of it in the past, the narrator will explain the history of Dragonite to the audience. He’ll tell us what it is and why it’s valuable to people at this time. Accompanied by a group of still-image pictures, these primers often play like history lessons for a fictional time period.

Some might consider this cheating, to have a narrator just tell us exposition without weaving it into the plot itself. However, OUTLAW STAR makes great use of these cold opens. Because of them, characters can reference fantastical elements of their world freely, and the audience understands what they’re talking about. Imagine if GAME OF THRONES explained to people what the Battle of the Trident was right before an episode where it comes up a lot. It would help the audience connect with the story better at that moment. Instead of saying “I guess that was some battle,” we would understand just how important that event was in King Robert’s ascension and the problems that arise later.

The cold opens help gives a show a more lived-in quality. Though OUTLAW STAR takes place in a setting that is foreign to the audience, the cold opens allows it to establish the universe better. It means less exposition in the dialogue, which helps the show feel more real when characters interact.

Great Characters

OUTLAW STAR may have its problems, but the characters are consistent. You might think of Luke Skywalker when you hear the name Gene Starwind, but he’s definitely more of a Han Solo-type. He’s a scoundrel. He’s brash and he womanizes too much. Underneath all that bravado, however, is a man who longs for adventure and a life among the stars.

Ironically, his business partner, Jim, is much more serious than Gene is. The 11-year-old is often the adult in their relationship and helps keep Gene on track. Jim’s small body makes him useless in fights, but his clear thinking and quick wits often help bail Gene out of trouble.

Melfina is an android who wants to discover who made her and why. She is immediately close to Jim and Gene. Gene even promises her that they will learn the truth about her together. In the meantime, she’s the key to operating the Outlaw Star, a ship too advanced and complex for any one person to operate alone. It requires the processing power of an equally advanced android like Melfina to assist in running the ship’s functions.

“Twilight” Suzuka, the assassin, met Jim and Gene while attempting to kill their business associate and friend, Fred Luo. Once Gene foils her attempts, she joins his crew because she says she finds them interesting. It may also have something to do with her grudge against the Kei pirates. Though she wields a wooden sword, she is a very powerful addition to the crew and a formidable fighter.

Aisha Clanclan is a disgraced member of the Ctarl Ctarl empire. She joins the crew out of desperation to find The Galactic Leyline and get back in the Empires’ good graces. She is a loudmouth and, to put it lightly, the comic relief of the crew.

The Show Does Have Some Problems

Jim and Gene looking exasperated
Jim and Gene are in a tough spot. | Image: Funimation

Not every episode feels essential. There are some diversions that just feel pointless to the story. While it is cool that the show can tell a lot of different kinds of stories, it often settles for more generic sci-fi ones. Maybe this wasn’t such a big deal in the 90’s, but in today’s binge culture it can spell death for a show. The show shines brightly when it escapes these worn out avenues.

Visually speaking, some of the character designs are inconsistent throughout the show. At times, even Gene, the main character,  looks different from moment to moment. The star-ships are well-drawn and interestingly designed, but sometimes fail to dazzle in the way the animator intended. Some of the action scenes are also underwhelming visually, with simple circles of white light substituted for more detailed explosions.

There are also some cringe-worthy moments of course. The show contains a harem for one thing. All the main characters other than Gene and Jim are women. Gene, the only “viable option” since Jim is 11, is surrounded by many attractive adult women. Though Gene later reveals his feelings for Melfina, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty of fan service among the crew and elsewhere.

Next is how Jim and Gene react to their business associate, Fred Luo. Fred’s interest in same-sex relationships, namely with Gene, is typically a punchline. His open flirtation with Gene is often met with disgust. There may be something comical in someone who peruses an unrequited romance, but it’s clear we’re meant to think that it’s funnier because they’re both men. This joke hasn’t aged well, to say the least.

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Interesting Ideas Working Together

The ship the Outlaw Star flies through space
The Outlaw Star | Image: Forbes

That being said, OUTLAW STAR makes up for some of this blandness with some very interesting concepts. In this universe, grappler ships are featured constantly. These are pirate-developed ships with long mechanical arms attached for ship-to-ship combat. Often these arms will wield a sword or a gun of their own, in addition to any other armaments the ship might have. This is something which makes OUTLAW STAR very unique in the world of space operas.

What makes OUTLAW STAR equally unique is the incorporation of magic. There are many characters in the show who use magic, especially the pirates. We get a taste of this right in the opening scenes of the show, and it creates an interesting contrast. There aren’t many sci-fi stories which attempt to incorporate the magic of a high fantasy world, and OUTLAW STAR does it to great effect.

This brings us to Gene’s most interesting weapon, the caster. Gene uses a verity of weapons throughout OUTLAW STAR, but the caster is the most powerful by far. In essence, what the caster does is shoot shells which contain magic. The weapon is very old, however, and the shells are rare, so he frequently runs out of them. Because of this, he must be careful with relying on this weapon. Still, they help give Gene a fighting chance against the magic wielders he encounters along the way, who can typically stop or deflect normal bullets with magic shields.

Cult Anime at its Finest

The crew of the Outlaw Star posing dramatically
The crew of the Outlaw Star | Image: Gaminguardian

In the end, the show comes to a climactic conclusion at episode 26. This is very frustrating because the show leaves off in the perfect place to start a new story. There is still so much world-building and character development left. There’s plenty of villains to fight and treasure left to hunt for. It feels like there’s a lot being left on the table and it’s a wasted opportunity to leave all of it there.

A spin-off series, ANGEL LINKS, takes place within the same universe but has nothing to do with Gene, Jim, or their crew. Because of that, the show lacks the same spirit that OUTLAW STAR fans fell in love with in the first place. To stay with the previous comparisons I’ve already made, ANGEL LINKS is like if you release a new STAR WARS movie but it didn’t have anything to do with Luke, Han, or Leia. And we all know how those turned out.

Despite its initial struggles, OUTLAW STAR is one of the true cult classic anime. And there is much left to explore within that universe. We could pick up Gene, Jim, and Melfina right where the show ends, off to new adventures, exploring the galaxy. And in doing so, it could learn from the mistakes it made in the first season. A second season of OUTLAW STAR would be the perfect 20th-anniversary gift to fans. Now if only they’ll give it to us.

Featured image screenshot from Funimation.

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