The Flag of Freedom – What Does Captain Harlock Really Fight For?


”Under my Flag, I live in Freedom…”

– Captain Harlock

Freedom. This is another theme that runs prominent throughout the animes of Captain Harlock. It is something that means a great deal to Harlock, yet he himself has never offered (as far as I know) a full fleshed-out definition of what exactly freedom means to him as a person. Because Harlock has no explicit religious/political affiliations and is a not a member of any kind of union or organization (save his two ill-fated stints as a Solar Federation Captain at the beginning of the Arcadia of My Youth film and as a Gaia Defense Legion Captain in the new CG-I Space Pirate film) and has never expressed a desire to be a part of any official man-made social construct of any kind, either as a citizen or a ruler, finding out what motivates him and drives him is quite difficult. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Harlock knows that that Harlock’s flag, fluttering defiantly in the non-existent breeze of space, is that classic pirate Jolly Roger flag of yore. After all, if Harlock is a space-pirate, than logic dictates that it serves to reason that he should fly a pirates’ flag. Simple enough – but with Harlock, it is not so simple as that. Nothing is.


To Harlock, his Jolly Roger flag is not just the archetypical banner of a pirate, it is his ‘Flag of Freedom’, a symbol of his independence, something that means far more to him then he’s willing to tell. Whenever he invites anyone to join the Arcadia’s crew, he points to his flag and asks the would-be recruit(s) if they promise to fight and die under this Flag of Freedom and for whatever is in their hearts that motivates them. Harlock is not interested in oaths of fealty directed at himself, nor of receiving personal recognition. Yes, he is the Captain, that is indisputable, but he gives as few orders as possible and when not commanding his men to shoot down/ram any human or alien spaceships that get in his way, he lets his crew do whatever they want – so they brawl and drink and play games and sleep in the Arcadia’s corridors, yet still remain dependable crew-members. And if they get bored/tired/freaked-out or disillusioned with life on-board the Arcadia, they are free to leave whenever they choose to (which they hardly ever do). Harlock will not stop them. Those who fight for freedom must to so of their own free will. Harlock never drags anyone onto his ship by force, nor does he forcibly keep them there. Either one is invited to board the Arcadia by Harlock himself, or one has sneaked aboard in order to sabotage the ship and/or kill Harlock. Taking hostages and demanding ransoms are acts quite foreign to this pirate. Because Harlock wants to surround himself (temporarily, at least) with like-minded people, individual responsibility and freedom, coming from the heart, is a big deal for him. ‘’I won’t let anyone on my ship who has no [sense of] purpose.’’ he tells an angry boy in Endless Orbit SSX who wants to board the Arcadia. Sometimes he lets people onto his ship out of charity, hoping they will mature over time, while others seek him out deliberately, usually out of desperation; others he himself rescues. Yet he never attempts to dominate or control their lives; he never gets in the way of their freedom (except when they are doing/about to do something rash or foolish or something that endangers everyone else). Only those who genuinely understand what freedom is can truly fight for it.


But again, what exactly does freedom mean to Harlock? What is the point of being free? It is so he can do whatever he wants? Much of the answer lies in the state of the world/universe at any given point in any of Harlock’s anime stories. Harlock desires and fights for his freedom because, sadly, the bulk of humanity are slaves. They are enslaved either by aliens who have conquered the Earth or by hedonistic lifestyles that have rendered them incapable of truly living lives that are valiant and courageous. The Sea of Stars means nothing to them – only eating and drinking and golfing and watching stupid cartoons and horse-races. This makes them prime targets for alien invasions and only Harlock has the guts to protest/do anything about it. And he is subsequently hated by both his fellow humans and the aliens for it. As for Harlock doing whatever he wants, that is indeed a scary notion that keeps the alien and human occupants of the universe on their toes and forever riding his ass, because if Harlock ever decided to go full-blown tyrannic pirate on them, their collective goose is cooked. Harlock could easily assassinate Earth’s pathetic rulers and raze entire cities to the ground (yes, the Arcadia has that much firepower) yet that is something he chooses not to do (although he does enjoy reminding them that he can, if he wants to). That is not what he sees freedom for. Harlock is a man who has a strong sense of honor and is himself a very disciplined person. He retains a high degree of self-control, and cannot be manipulated easily by his emotions or passions. He is indifferent to woman, power and materiel wealth, or anything that might bog him down or distract him from his goals. For him, freedom does not meaning doing whatever one wants (although that option is always tantalizingly available), it means maintaining one’s convictions and one’s desire for better standards in a world where they have become almost nonexistent. Free-will is a big issue with him. Harlock hates doing things out of obligation; he helps others because he wants to, not because its written down as a law in a Captain’s-manual somewhere. He also hates being told what to do, and, subconsciously following the ‘do unto others’ rule, he himself tries to tell others what to do as little as possible.


”Our flag of freedom still flies, Tochiro!”

Subsequently, Harlock has little patience or respect for authority figures of any kind, especially when they show themselves to be dishonorable douche-bags; but if Harlock ever encounters anyone, even if they declare themselves to be his enemy, who possesses a fighting spirit and integrity, he has great respect for them, and may even try to win them over to his cause or a least show them that he poses no threat (being stylized as a space-pirate often makes this difficult, since most space-pirates are viewed as a cowardly, dishonorable lot). But Harlock’s desire for freedom takes on another integrating aspect: because he treasures his own freedom, he tries as little as possible to impede upon the freedom of others. Often his attempts to advise or aid other people are met with scorn and mistrust; he is often told to leave and not interfere with their struggles and battles, even when it is obvious that they could use his help.  Harlock, however, rarely argues the point; he stoically hides whatever feelings of frustration or sadness he has as a result of their rejection, and simply leaves. The freedom of others to make their own choices is just as important as his own freedom; it is only when others use their freedom to try and kill and/or dominate Harlock or those he loves that things turn ugly.


In one version of Harlock’s history (and my own personal favorite – the classic 80’s Arcadia of My Youth/Endless-Orbit SSX movie/series) Harlock’s giant Jolly Roger flag is made by Harlock’s wife/sweetheart Maaya (or Maya) prior to her untimely, tragic death in his arms. After Harlock commits her body to the Sea of Stars and vows to never stop fighting, he leaves Earth for good, searching for the mythical ‘Planet of Peace’ – the true Arcadia. Along the way he is accosted and attacked time and time again by the vengeful Mr. Fayodor Zone, a bitter space battleship engineer who seeks to kill Harlock after Harlock’s displeasure at his flawed battleship design caused him to be fired from his job. After much toil and hardship, both Harlock and Mr. Zone are admitted into the realm of Arcadia by the Queen of Arcadia, who seeks to test their hearts and see which one of them is true. As Harlock kneels before the Queen (the only time we ever see him adopt a submissive posture before anyone), Mr. Zone uses the moment to slander Harlock in a vicious verbal slap-down, using Harlock’s pirate flag as proof of his accusations:

Mr. Zone to Harlock: ”You want to find Arcadia, build your own country there, and then plot to conquer all of space, right?!”

Harlock: ”No!”

Mr. Zone: ”Enough of your excuses! The pirate’s flag hoisted above your ship is clear evidence! You are a damned outlaw of the seas of space…an outlaw of bloodshed and genocide! Hell is defiantly where your Arcadia is! (1)”

At this point, it is the youthful Tadashi Monono who confronts Zone, saying what Harlock himself will not, or cannot say:

Tadashi Monono to Mr. Zone: ”Stop talking nonsense! You don’t know anything about the Captain! That flag is proof that we fight for justice, even if we all turn into bones! As proof, Mr. Tochiro cast aside his own life in order to show the Arcadia the way! If he was just a mere outlaw, there’s no way he could do such a thing. Would he sacrifice his own life for others? Are you saying you can do such a thing?!”


In this brief yet powerful exchange, many things can be examined. One is that Harlock does not defend himself against Mr. Zone’s accusations, or attempt explain/justify himself to the Queen. It is the boy whom he has befriended who speaks up for him with all the passion of his young heart. The ‘pirate’ Flag of Freedom is the symbol of justice and sacrifice: two virtues that are severely lacking in Harlock’s world(s). And Harlock and his friends are willing to die, to ‘turn into bones,’ to defend it (a fate that only seems to fall upon poor Tochiro; Harlock and Emeraldas have yet to officially die in any story). Freedom is the freedom not to do what one wants, but freedom to be true to one’s heart and dreams when everything else is going down the crapper and everybody hates you for it. This is the burden that Harlock has to bear: to remain true to himself in a world where such men are forever hated, feared and rejected.


In the end, Harlock, Tochiro, Emeraldas and the others are perpetually feared, vilified and hunted not really because of what they do, but because of what they will not do. And what they will not do is this: they will not submit to foreign subjugation. They will not obey unjust laws enforced by petty rulers who impress no one. They will not join the corrupt or the unworthy in their pathetic/dishonorable way of life. They will not let themselves be ruled by fear or greed or lust for power. Harlock will keep on fighting forever, even when all hope and reason have failed. He will not yield; he will not surrender; he will never stop seeking a better future, a higher standard, a more worthy way of life, even if the entire universe is against him because of it. Nothing will stop him. He will remain true to his convictions and dreams. Only he knows what is in his heart. Only Tochiro can truly see into that heart. The skull-and-bones flag the Arcadia flies is to Harlock a symbol of freedom to the death, and Harlock’s not dead yet, he is out there, somewhere, if not in real life then at least in the dreams of youth, in all the hearts of all the young people he has touched; in my own dreams. Go, Harlock, flee the dead world and the dead hearts of those who care nothing for freedom or integrity or honor. Surrender to nothing, yield to nothing…keep true to the words you spoke so long ago…

”We will not pray for anything, nor will we seek help from anyone. Never again will we fight under another’s flag. We will keep on fighting, only for what we believe in, only under our flag, for as long as we live. Under my flag!”

– Captain Harlock; Arcadia of My Youth (1982)


The Flag of Freedom!


*   *   *

(1): Regrettably, 30 years later, this accusation against Harlock is turned into a truthful one in the 2013 CG-I Space Pirate Captain Harlock movie reboot, where Harlock is indeed portrayed as a damned space-outlaw who revels in bloodshed and attempts to bring about universal genocide.


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