We live in a world of media oversaturation. There is so much stuff out there now that, even in a year where we’ve had (slightly!) fewer new things to watch, there’s been the chance to dive back into familiar favourites, things we missed, and drown ourselves ever further. Sometimes it’s just to distract, something to have on to soothe a focus elsewhere. But it’s also allowed the chance to capture the quiet joy of homing in on something that feels like it was made just for you.
I have, like many people (and especially so on the Gizmodo staff) spent much of this year playing a heady game of catchup and comfort when it comes to the things I watch. Busy as I typically am with watching new things to write about on this website, comfort watches are something of a luxury, so I’ve naturally gravitated towards re-exploring shows and franchises I love. An anniversary rewatch of Star Trek: Voyager here, some Clone Wars before season seven there. The opportunity to just fully mentally retreat into my teenage years and watch more Gundam than is probably healthy for a person was also valuable, if also distressingly wearisome for my wallet in the form of a legion of model kits.
But these were all things I knew I loved already. Outside of recontextualizing creations through the passage of time (to the shock of my teen brain, Gundam Wing does not hold up remotely as well as I remember!), the enjoyment here was in familiarity, of re-embracing things already viewed. And that’s fine! It scratches a certain itch, but when we are so surrounded by media in the first place, nothing quite beats the visceral feeling of finding something in that sea of stuff and instantly clicking with it like it was one of those familiar favourites. As it turns out, one of the highest hits for me this year that did that has been Outlaw Star.
Released in 1998, directed by Mitsuru Hongo for Sunrise, and based off the Takehiko Itō manga of the same name, Outlaw Star at its most reductive is basically “What if Firefly but anime, and also like, so far before Firefly it feels like Joss Whedon took a lot of notes?” It follows the adventures of the ragtag crew of the titular ship — Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking, down-on-their-luck mercenaries looking to make a buck and explore the stars, and Melfina, the mysterious android with ties to the experimental tech powering the Star itself. They’re joined by tagalongs Aisha Clan-Clan (a feline ambassador for the Ctarl-Ctarl empire that accidentally crosses paths with Gene early in the show as a quasi-antagonist before joining the crew) and the wandering swordswoman assassin “Twilight” Suzuka.
There are some overarching threads here and there; Gene and the ship itself find themselves the target of pirate factions looking to claim the experimental vessel, there’s a mysterious treasure to chase known only as the mystical Galactic Leyline, and rival outlaws to take vengeance on. But it’s mostly a compartmentalized narrative, each episode a new job for the crew to mostly bumble their way through — a sci-fi western through and through, right down to the bounty boards, space races, and seedy spaceports.
Which means to say it is, uh, extremely my kind of thing. It’s messy, flawed people thrust into a grander world than they’d planned to be, just trying to make it through. There’s killer gunslinging as one would expect out of any good space cowboy adventure, but cool, quasi-mecha space combat, with ships going toe-to-toe not just with missiles and gun batteries, but also massive grappler arms that can punch and grasp at rival ships to hold them in place for an attack or provide a boarding opportunity. Did I mention sometimes a spaceship has just…got a sword?
anime rules pic.twitter.com/7tXf5bGUmf
— James Whitbrook (@Jwhitbrook) November 8, 2020
Yeah. Hell yeah.
It even caters to some other distressingly nerdy specifics that I love too; the downtime between the action in each episode, when it isn’t the characters just hanging out and bouncing off each other, is almost always centered on the crew trying to make money to pay for things like docking port fees, more ammunition, and ship repairs, and the underlying tension of whether or not Gene and his friends will take on dangerous jobs knowing they’ll barely be offering enough for upkeep. Those aren’t the sort of things a shonen space anime is really interested in between the flashy explosions and cool gear, and there’s something very grounding about how Outlaw Star takes as much fun and interest in those quiet moments between adventures as it does the adventures themselves. There’s a care to the worldbuilding that makes each episode a treat to explore beyond the fun characters or the gorgeously-rendered fight scenes that kept me putting on episode after episode, night after night.
But what charmed me above all was, despite the fact that I was watching something over two decades old, discovering Outlaw Star like it was entirely new and unknown made me realised how much it’s the kind of thing that would’ve sent my younger self spinning into the atmosphere with glee when it first aired back on Toonami years ago. There’s an alternate world where it sat alongside youthful favourites like Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo, or Sailor Moon, and revisiting it now in this strange and stressful year would be a familiar comfort. But I’m glad I got to experience it this way — a nice surprise to find something you love that had otherwise spent a lifetime passing you by.
In a year where we look to what’s known in our media to find solace, there’s always going to be something so much more exciting about diving into something unknown — matched only by the high of finding out that it’s destined to become a future favourite.