Leiji Matsumoto's most famous character is undoubtedly Captain Harlock, the mysterious interstellar swashbuckler with an unflinching ethical code. His manga debut was back in 1953, and his original animated appearance was supposed to be an arc in Matsumoto's classic Space Battleship Yamato. Those extra episodes were excised from the run, but Harlock graduated to his own series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Since then, he has appeared in numerous revisions of his storyline, as well as crossing over into Galaxy Express 999 and its related franchises.
This first series to feature Harlock takes place in the far future when Earth is ruled by a corrupt and complacent government. It is a world full of ease and luxury, thus devoid of passion and moral energy. Even when a massive black orb plunges from the sky and kills countless civilians, the authorities fail to act. They are content to let things slide until a "real threat" presents itself. The most passion is felt by the military commander who has a personal feud with the space pirate known as Captain Harlock.
Against this complacent government, Harlock is a man of passion and activity. He is regarded repeatedly, and positively, as a man who follows the dictates of his own heart. For the longest time this meant robbing from the rich shipments moving to Earth, but with the arrival of this devastating attack, he becomes the sole line of defense for humanity. He is not the only one to take notice, for the astronomer Tsuyoshi Daiba notices the encroaching fleet of alien Mazone warships. Though failing in his bid to convince the government of the crisis, Daiba is assassinated by enemy agents. His vengeful son Tadashi is conscripted by Harlock to join the fight.
Harlock's ship is the Arcadia, a hybrid of pirate ship, WWII battle cruiser and spacecraft. It also has an incredible secret locked away in its main computer, which becomes a major plot point for the Mazone when trying to defeat the shockingly successful pirate. Despite being disgusted with Earth and having a pretty fantastic ship, Harlock remains tied to humanity through Mayu, orphan daughter of the Arcadia's engineer. She has remained on the planet to have as normal a life as possible at the request of her late father, Tochiro Oyama. He was Harlock's closest friend and a brilliant scientist in his own right, his shadow looming large over the series and even bleeding over into Galaxy Express 999. It is Tochiro's hat and Cosmo Dragoon gun that Tetsuro bears.
Their enemy are a frightening extragalactic power. As a plant-based lifeform that spontaneously combusts on death, the Mazone long ago infiltrated Earth, planting themselves in the world's jungles and leaving bases hidden beneath polar ice. When the Mazone homeworld became unlivable, the civilization embarked on the plan to repossess Earth. Still, dissent brews amongst them as the voyage drags on and the battle with Harlock becomes ever more vicious.
In interviews, Leiji Matsumoto has denied that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is influenced by post-war Japan, the Empire's loss in WWII and subsequent occupation by Americans. He has only had to deny it because it is a theory that the series lends itself so easily to. Similar themes come out in shows like Space Battleship Yamato, which is based on the ill-starred Japanese battleship Yamato. Japan's defeat and its cultural toll could not have been uninfluential on Matsumoto, whose own father was a pilot.
In a recent interview for Otaku USA magazine and StarBlazers.com, Matsumoto described his broader philosophy of life. To be succinct, his broader philosophy is life... Life worth living, a life of passion and conviction.
...my policy is that death is absolutely prohibited. People are born to live. Life is born to live. Only a fool would live to die. This is the most basic aspect of my work.
This philosophy underlies Galaxy Express 999 and Tetsuro's inner-conflict being living on in an immortal machine body or being truly alive in his mortal flesh. It is also Captain Harlock's philosophy: life at all costs, the preservation of life on Earth with all its hopes and possibilities and suffering. That is what faced him against an ambivalent government and then against the threat from the stars.
This devotion to life makes his movements incomprehensible to Queen Lafresia of the Mazone. She will stop at nothing and utilize every dirty tactic in the book to win her fight, and always Harlock stays one step ahead because she cannot figure out this principle of life. Even when she seems to understand it enough to entrap him, he still escapes her snare. However, though he seeks life for others, he is more ambivalent to his own. When he is asked directly about his motivations - in a situation that he knows Lafresia can hear - he says that he is looking for his own place to die. He fights because he has not yet found it.
The 42 episode run of Space Pirate Captain Harlock is considerably easier to manage than all 113 episodes of Galaxy Express 999. Like Galaxy Express, Captain Harlock is available for licenced viewing on FUNimation and Crunchyroll.