First off, Happy Halloween! I’m in Tucson, Arizona at the TusCon Science Fiction convention this weekend. There are lots of great panels and good people. If you’re in town and free, I hope you’ll drop by. There are details at the link above.
This month, I’ve been watching Leiji Matsumoto’s anime series Gun Frontier. It may not seem your usual Halloween fare, but it’s been an interesting way to wind down after days of working on my steampunk novel, The Brazen Shark, which is now back with the editor. I’ll have to admit, the first time I watched an episode of Gun Frontier, I wasn’t impressed. I came across the series in an article about Matsumoto’s famous Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Matsumoto is famous for recycling his characters into different situations to create new shows. In this case, he told a story about Harlock and his best friend, Tochiro, in the old west. This sounded like it would be right up my alley. What I got was a show, that to be honest, was rather crude with offensive humor and nonsensical situations.
So, why did I go back? I realized that Matsumoto was actually doing something in Gun Frontier very similar to what I’m doing in The Brazen Shark. In my novel, I imagine my characters from the western United States visiting Meiji-era Japan. In Gun Frontier, Tochiro is a samurai who has come to the western United States looking for settlers from Japan along with his long lost sister. I had the chance to see what it was like to view the Wild West of my ancestors through the lens of a Japanese writer and artist.
What I found after I watched several episodes was a rather interesting example of an acid western. The term “acid western” was coined fairly recently by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to describe the Johnny Depp western Dead Man. Acid westerns are said to have a hallucinogenic quality with aspects derived from 1960s counterculture, which often includes a more contemporary score. In the traditional western, the west is often viewed as an optimistic place. In the acid western, the west is often seen as an almost nightmarish place. Other examples of acid westerns include Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Gun Frontier shows us a bizarre west. In one town, everyone can do what they want, no matter the consequences. This includes one gentleman perched on a toilet in the middle of the street. In another episode, the town has imposed a limit on the height of the people who can enter. Each of our primary characters has a superpower of sorts. This Harlock is a former sea captain, good with his guns. Tochiro can’t see worth a darn, but he’s an amazing swordsman. They travel with a woman named Sinonora, who uses her sex appeal like a weapon and wastes little time getting out of her clothes in many episodes. The score is Japanese pop, similar to many other anime series of the early 2000s.
I gather the Gun Frontier manga was actually the first time the characters of Harlock and Tochiro appeared in print. It was published in 1972, six years before we would meet Harlock as a space pirate, but only two years after the release of El Topo and a year before the release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It was prime time for the acid western.
What kept the series together and kept me watching was the ongoing quest and the hope that Tochiro would be reunited with his sister. Also, the Harlock and Tochiro of this series are still fundamentally the same characters as their space pirate counterparts and there are some nice scenes where they imagine themselves traveling the stars. Because I enjoyed the characters, I found Gun Frontier more enjoyable than its contemporary acid westerns. I also found it fascinating to see Matsumoto’s portrayal of the west, which looked more like Sergio Leone’s than John Ford’s.
Gun Frontier is crude, nonsensical, sometimes homophobic, but interesting. It’s clearly not a western for everyone but fans of acid westerns and Matsumoto will likely be transported back in time, if not to the old west, at least to the west as it was envisioned in the 1970s.