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Who is Justy Ueki Tylor? Is he a bumbling fool with the luck of the devil? A tactical genius with the wisdom of a Buddhist saint? Or perhaps a little of both? Whatever the answer to his riddle, this slim young man in the oversized trenchcoat, with his sleepy eyes, unruly mop of brown hair, and gentle, slightly goofy smile, has won the hearts of anime fans around the world.

For those readers who are not anime fans, a little explanation may be in order. In America, animation, particularly feature-length animation, can be described fairly as a genre; virtually all of it is highly fanciful and aimed at children, whether the stories are classic fairy tales or more modern variants on the form such as Toy Story. In Japan, on the other hand, animation, or anime as it is usually called, is used for as broad a variety of stories as live action film. Anime movies, TV shows, and direct-to-video miniseries range from children's cartoons (Kimba the White Lion, Pokemon) to fantasy and science fiction aimed at teenagers (Record of Lodoss War, Macross), to Hitchcockian thrillers (Perfect Blue), literary classics (The Tale of Genji), wartime tragedies (Grave of the Fireflies), and hard-core pornography (Cool Devices).

The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a rather satirical variant on the space opera formula common in anime TV series, in which a heroic captain and crew must save the human race from an encroaching alien empire. It begins with Tylor's enlistment in the United Planets Space Force, which he sees simply as a way to get free room and board and, eventually, a pension. The possibility that he might get killed doesn't faze him, despite the fact that war is brewing between the United Planets and their powerful neighbor, the Raalgon Empire. The recruiter isn't impressed at first, but Tylor spins a wildly improbable tale about his potentially brilliant career; he wraps it up by saying that when he's admiral of the fleet and the hero of the United Planets he'll write a memoir praising the perspicacity of the Chief Petty Officer who first saw his potential. It seems Tylor does have at least one talent: he can charm the socks off just about anyone he meets. He is accepted into the service and assigned to the pension department.

Shortly after his induction, Tylor resolves (largely by accident) a hostage crisis involving a couple of Raalgon agents, retired Admiral Robert J. Hanner, his ditzy twin daughters Yumi and Emi, and a young UPSF officer, Yuriko Star. As a reward, he is promoted and given command of the destroyer Soyokaze ("Gentle Breeze") - one of the oldest ships in the fleet, and home to some of the worst misfits and malcontents in the UPSF. The admirals who put him there would like nothing better than to see Tylor and his ship blasted out of the universe, but his incredible luck (or brilliance?) leads to one victory after another.

Tylor's crew includes a squad of hyper-aggressive marines led by Master Sergeant Cryburn and Dropship Pilot Andressen; hotshot fighter pilot Kojiro (a legend in his own mind); pilot trainees Yumi and Emi; drunken Dr. Kawasaki and his gorgeous nurse, Harumi; vain communications officer Kim; ascetic helmsman Katori; stuffy Lieutenant Yamamoto, who does everything by the book and was made Tylor's first officer as punishment for failing to deal with the hostage situation, which he had been sent to resolve; and intelligence officer Yuriko, who actually asked to serve on the Soyokaze with the rather quixotic goal of reforming Tylor and his crew and turning them into a disciplined military force. Chief among their Raalgon opponents are the scheming Prime Minister Wang, boorish Admiral Donan, wise and honorable Captain Rue Barabba Dom, and the sixteen-year-old Empress Azalyn, without a doubt the cutest interstellar tyrant ever to threaten Earth.

While the show contains plenty of action and hilarious slapstick comedy, what really makes it effective is the way the characters and their relationships develop over the course of the story. Mark Twain, in his essay on "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper," decreed that an author should "make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate," and that "the characters in a tale should be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency." The creators of this series have accomplished both these goals - with the notable exception that, though we come to understand (and like) Tylor quite well by the end of the series, his response to any given emergency remains unpredictable - the only thing of which you can be certain is that he won't do things by the book.

The animation in The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is fairly average for a TV anime series - not up to the spectacular quality of a movie like Princess Mononoke, but significantly better than children's shows like Pokemon and Sailor Moon. The characters each have their own distinctive look, unlike many series that seem to reuse the same faces over and over with different costumes (e.g. Parn, hero of the popular fantasy series Record of Lodoss War, looks just like Rick Hunter from the old Robotech sci-fi series, only dressed in armor instead of a flight suit). There are a couple of references to other anime - Dom's appearance is an obvious nod at Captain Harlock, the heroic space pirate whom anime fans regard as one of the genre's classic characters - but you would never actually mistake one for the other. The ships are also well done: the Soyokaze, for all she may be a rusty bucket of bolts, is one of the most elegant-looking spaceships ever animated. She somewhat resembles a WWII-era submarine, with a prow like that of a surface ship above and behind the point of her streamlined, roughly cylindrical hull, and a superstructure similar to a sub's conning tower about two-thirds of the way back to the stern. (A similar design was used for the eponymous "Space Battleship Yamato," better known as Argo to American viewers of that series, which was syndicated in the U.S. under the title Star Blazers.) The Raalgon ships she faces, especially Dom's cruiser Doroume, are satisfyingly alien in design, resembling huge, multi-eyed sea creatures.

The show's opening and closing credits are backed by Japanese pop songs typical of anime, but the opening song, "Just Think Of Tomorrow," is a particularly bright, sprightly example of the type; I found myself humming it in various places - at work, on the subway, in the shower and the swimming pool - for days after watching the series. The series also makes effective use of background music to enhance (or occasionally to counterpoint) the emotion of scenes, whether it be humor, tension, triumph, or pathos. Particularly noteworthy are several classical pieces played during some of the show's most crucial moments. I may never be able to hear Franz von Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture again without seeing in my mind's eye . . . but that would be telling, wouldn't it? You'll just have to watch the show and find out for yourself.

The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is available on VHS in subtitled and dubbed versions from Right Stuf Entertainment. If you're lucky enough, you might also be able to rent it from a video store that carrys a lot of anime (such as Pandora's Cube in College Park, MD). According to the people at Right Stuf, it will be released on DVD (with either subtitled Japanese dialogue or dubbed English voiceovers available as options on the same disc) toward the end of this year. Since I rented the subtitled version, I can't speak to the quality of the dubs, but I've heard from other fans that they're far better than the usual run of dubbed anime. All the same, I'd recommend subtitles unless you're a slow reader -- the expression the Japanese voice actors bring to the characters added to my enjoyment of the story even though I couldn't understand the language.



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