Hoist the Jolly Roger

Time for another anime review. This time, I’m going to talk about a show rather more current than Kamichu. I’m staying spoiler-free; I wouldn’t want to ruin any surprises for you.

msp1Bodacious Space Pirates” (originally released in Japan as “Mouretsu Space Pirates”*) is a 26 episode TV show based on a series of light novels published as “Miniskirt Space Pirates”, which you probably think tells you everything you need to know about the target audience. You’d be wrong, though.

* None of the online translation services seem to want to try to translate “mouretsu”; Wikipedia’s page on the show renders it as “fierce”. Somehow I find “bodacious” far more entertaining and much more in keeping with the nature of the show.

mar1Under any of its names, this is the tale of Marika, a high school freshman who learns in the first episode that the father she never knew has just died; that he was the captain of the pirate ship “Bentenmaru”; that her mother is a former member of the Bentenmaru’s crew; and that she has just inherited the captaincy. For the record, no, her father didn’t die in a boarding action or anything else traditionally piratical; he succumbed to food poisoning. Well, not officially piratical, anyway. Clearly, we’re not dealing with a serious examination of piracy here.

One of the things Mouretsu Space Pirates gets right is pacing – given this setup, many shows would have Marika take all of five seconds to hoist the jolly roger and set sail. Instead, she takes her time, does her research (net searches about pirates, shooting lessons with her mother, and a training cruise with her school’s yacht club), and doesn’t make her decision until the end of episode 5.

Another thing the show gets right is establishing the economic foundation of piracy. Without going into too much detail and getting into spoiler space, I’ll just note that in Marika’s universe, pirates might more accurately be called “privateers”: they operate under letters of marque from the planetary government, they’re tightly regulated, and work closely with insurance companies to find jobs (and it’s implied that they sell their loot through the insurance companies as well). That’s a historic pattern well-known, if not widely acknowledged.

Even little details work well – the use of steganography to hide messages in music is clever.

So we’ve got a comedy about piracy on the high seas. (OK, yes, it’s set in space, but clearly this is “space as ocean”, and the show’s producers go to great lengths to make it totally clear, right down to using sailing ship sound effects in the background.) And yet it works. The show has a nice balance of chuckles and laugh-out-loud moments, running gags and one-off jokes. While it makes use of many major tropes, it generally tries to subvert them, and usually succeeds. When it doesn’t subvert them, it takes them to an unreasonable extreme. Case in point: when Marika needs to recruit a temporary replacement crew, every viewer knows she’s going to wind up with her school yacht club filling the role. The sheer enthusiasm they bring to the art of piracy elevates the plot well beyond the mundane.

msp4Major characters go beyond the normal one-dimensional cardboard cutouts found in lazy comedies. Marika is neither a brainless ditz nor an impulsive lunatic. Her decision to remain a part-time pirate until she graduates from high school and her struggles to balance pirating, school work, and her other part-time job (waitress in a maid cafe) shapes the course of the show.

Her colleague/rival/friend Chiaki is the daughter of another pirate captain. Chiaki clearly wants to succeed her father as captain, and her transition from resentment of Marika to respect and admiration is nicely handled: clear but not slapping the viewer in the face.

Princesses Gruier and Grunhilde play off each other nicely, as representatives of a monarchy in transition from absolute to constitutional rule, they’re trying to find their places and figure out what to do with their lives.

Even the more minor characters get attention; the relationship between Lynn and Jenny – responsible for the show’s biggest “squeeeeee” moment – gives them some depth without dominating their roles.

Is the show perfect? Not at all. Some jokes fall flat and the episodes focused on Jenny and Lynn come off as filler – there’s clearly a meaningful growth experience for Marika there, but it’s insufficiently developed to work as a part of the main story, but runs too long as a side-story. While the show wraps up the current plot well enough, it was clearly written with the intent of a sequel: there’s a movie scheduled for release in February 2014, but I suspect the producers are aiming for a new TV season as well.

Oh, remember I said earlier that the title of the original novel series suggests the target audience, but it’s not quite as it seems? Yes, the girls do wear the mini-skirted school uniforms shown in the picture at the top of this review. In space. In Zero-G conditions. It’s OK, though: not a panty shot is to be seen; clearly the skirts are magic.

Mouretsu Space Pirates isn’t life-changing, nor does it try to be. As the pleasant diversion it does try to be, it succeeds well beyond my expectation. Highly recommended.