Though there are slight variations in each telling of Harlock's story, the essentials remain the same. Matsumoto presents a future (2977 AD) in which the Earth has achieved a vast starfaring civilization, but is slowly and steadily succumbing to ennui or despair, often due to defeat and subjugation by a foreign invader. Rising against the general apathy, Harlock denies defeat and leads an outlaw crew aboard his starship Arcadia to undertake daring raids against Earth's oppressors. Even though they have defeated Earth and devastated its peoples, the invaders are often presented in a sympathetic light, being shown as having some justification for their actions.
In Space Pirate Captain Harlock, the Captain's crew included the mysterious, alcohol-imbibing alien woman Miime, a robot, and a drunken doctor. The series presented a story arc in which a huge black metal sphere strikes Tokyo and ancient Mayan legends appear to be walking the Earth again. The invaders turn out to be the Mazone, a race of plant-based women who explored Earth in the mythic past and are now back to reclaim it. Only Harlock and his mismatched crew are brave and capable enough to face the enemy.
This 1978 short film is ostensibly a retelling of Episode 13 of the 1978 series, 'The Witch's Ocean Castle of Death'. It consists primarily of recycled footage taken from this same episode, but presented in widescreen format. Some new alternate footage is added at the beginning of the story, and some soundtrack adjustments were made throughout.
The Arcadia of My Youth feature film was released on July 28, 1982. The film, set in a different continuity from the original TV series, chronicles Harlock's beginnings as a space pirate and his acquisition of the spaceship Arcadia. The movie also includes flashback material dealing with two of his 20th-century ancestors.
Arcadia of My Youth was followed by 22 episodes of the TV series Endless Road/Orbit SSX starting in October 1982. Its official French title is simply Albator, although it early became popular among French speakers as Albator 84 since it was first aired in France as of 1984 and the 1978 series had been formerly named in French exactly the same: Albator. The series dealt with Harlock and company's continuing struggle against the Illumidas occupying force, who still retained control of Earth at the end of the theatrical feature. Both film (Arcadia of My Youth) and second series (Endless Road/Orbit SSX) feature a newly designed starship and lack most of the crew from the Space Pirate series, but are noteworthy for the presence of Emeraldas, a female counterpart to Harlock who originally appeared in a series of Matsumoto-penned graphic novels.
In the 1990s, Matsumoto released Harlock Saga, a mini-series based on Das Rheingold. The series recasts the Captain and his crew in roles with analogues in The Ring Cycle and pits them against a race of "gods" set on redesigning the universe to their liking.
On March 28, 2002 Gun Frontier, a buddy comedy set in the American Old West, began broadcasting in TV Tokyo. The series follows Franklin Harlock Jr. and Tochiro Ōyama as they search for a lost clan of Japanese immigrants. In contrast to other works, Harlock appears here as Tochiro's sidekick.
December 2002 saw the release of Space Pirate Captain Harlock: The Endless Odyssey, directed by Rintaro.
The story is set after the original TV series, with Harlock on a self-imposed exile and his crew either in jail or flying under the Jolly Roger. The series details Harlock's return and his round-up of the Arcadia crew for a fight against the Noo, a mysterious and ancient evil which has caused the Earth to disappear, and who use fear to conquer their foes. As nearly every part of this series is geared to be a sequel to the original Captain Harlock TV series, Endless Odyssey reintroduces Tadashi Daiba to the Arcadia.
On March 24, 2010, Toei Animation announced the release of the new Harlock movie, they announced a completed pilot for its planned computer-graphics remake of Leiji Matsumoto and Toei's Space Pirate Captain Harlock manga and anime franchise, and it has revealed a preliminary image and the project's staff. Mobile Suit Gundam UC author Harutoshi Fukui, Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki, Appleseed mechanical designer Atsushi Takeuchi, and Ninja Scroll character designer Yutaka Minowa worked on the new Space Pirate Captain Harlock pilot with Marza Animation Planet (formerly known as Sega Sammy Visual Entertainment).
The official trailer/pilot was aired at the Kawaii-Kon Anime festival in Hawaii on April 17, 2010, as a special presentation courtesy of Director Shinji Aramaki. This is the first time it has been seen/aired in the United States. The CG animated film is tentatively schedule for international release in 2012.
On January 31, 2013 during the presentation of its upcoming film lineup, Toei announced that the anime will be out in Fall 2013. According to the news source Oricon, this film has Toei Animation's highest production budget ever at the equivalent of over 30 million U.S. dollars.
The film premiered in Japan on September 7, 2013.
The film premiered on Netflix under the title Harlock: Space Pirate with Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish audio and with English, Portuguese and Spanish subtitles.
Captain Harlock and his world have been developed and occasionally re-developed as Matsumoto changes his conceptions about them. The original 1978 Captain Harlock television series was conceived as an independent, standalone work.
When Harlock appears in Arcadia of My Youth feature film the sequel TV series Endless Road SSX, his back story was significantly changed. He was a military officer before he became a space pirate, the circumstances of which were related in the film. This was also the only on-screen incarnation in which Harlock was married. The death of his wife Maya at the hands of Earth's alien conquerors plays a large part in turning Harlock from unconquered space captain to brooding space pirate. The backgrounds of other major characters, such as fellow pirate Emeraldas and best friend Tochirō Ōyama, were also altered in accordance with Harlock's new history.
When Matsumoto's works again became popular in the 1990s and he began to pen the Harlock Saga manga, he changed the backdrop of Harlock and his universe. This time it was based in part on Wagner's Ring cycle and required significant reworking of almost every one of Matsumoto's stock stable of characters in order to make the story fit. He is only a teenager when the Earth is conquered and his father Great Harlock is the first to take up the "fight for freedom" touched upon in Arcadia of My Youth. As of 2007, this is the version of Harlock that Matsumoto considers in continuity. Harlock's appearance in Space Symphony Maetel tries to consolidate previous adaptations of the character.
Tochirō Ōyama (大山トチロー, Ōyama Tochirō). Harlock's old friend and the architect and chief builder of the Arcadia. He died of illness prior to the events of the series, but his consciousness survives within the ship's computer.
Emeraldas. A space pirate much like Harlock, she bears a scar under her left eye. In certain incarnations she wears an outfit similar in design to the one worn by Harlock. She is the captain of the pirate vessel Queen Emeraldas, and claims that only her ship and Harlock's Arcadia may fly the skull-and-crossbones insignia.
Mayu Ōyama (大山まゆ, Ōyama Mayu). The daughter of Tochirō Ōyama and Emeraldas. Harlock takes her under his wing following Tochirō's death and Emeraldas' departure, but she is unable to remain with Harlock due to Tochirō's wish that she remain on Earth.
Miime/Mime/Mimay/Melody, a female alien harpist serving on board the Arcadia as Harlock's adviser and source of morale. A gentle, affectionate individual, her body design resembles a slender humanoid female with purple hair, blue skin, and yellow pupil-less eyes. Her face has no apparent mouth (a characteristic of her race), although she can speak and somehow absorb liquid by pouring it where her mouth should be. Miime requires alcohol as her single (non-intoxicating) nutrient; ingesting it causes her body to give off a bright yellow light. This light also beams from her body in times of anger; and in one episode the light was used as an energy weapon. Miime's talents include mental and emotional empathy to sentient beings, a trait she uses medicinally as member of the sickbay staff. During moments of violence/consternation she plays a lap harp, her music instilling serenity to her onboard colleagues, particularly Harlock, who welcomes Miime's soothing presence to his cabin on many occasions. She occasionally acts as ship's helmsman/navigator, showing substantial knowledge of the Arcadia's operation. Her race was apparently exterminated when radiation made her home planet Jura's indigenous flora ambulatory predators. The Captain and crew saved her from her world's fate, predicating her eternal loyalty to the Arcadia's captain even to the point of risking her life to ensure his safety. Although this relationship at times seems close enough to appear romantic, its left unclear what the couple's feelings are specifically. In some of the series reboots, as well as the 2010 cinematic feature film, Miime has a more humanoid appearance with a mouth and conventional eyes.
Professor Tsuyoshi Daiba. Tadashi Daiba's father, an astronomer and scientist. He was one of the few scientists who saw the aliens' threat and attempted to warn Earth's government before he was killed by the Mazone. Tadashi, affected by his father's murder, joined the Arcadia crew to seek his revenge.
Mitsuru Kiruda (切田 満, Kiruda Mitsuru). The leader of Earth's defense forces, he is Harlock's sworn enemy and will stop at nothing to try to eliminate him. Earlier in his life, Kiruta suffered the loss of his father, a government secret agent, during an ill-fated mission, followed by his mother and his younger sister Tami. Blaming the government for his family's death, he rose through the military ranks in order to effect change for the better and, like Professor Daiba before him, tried in vain to warn the Earth government of the Mazone invasion. Kiruda eventually puts his grudge with Harlock aside and sacrifices himself defending the Arcadia's main computer against Mazone troopers.
Kei Yuki, is a female top officer on the Arcadia and loyal crew member.
Harlock has achieved notable popularity. In 1979, the character won the first annual Anime Grand Prix for favorite character. In 2006, Harlock and the characters of Galaxy Express 999 were recognized in the third set of "Anime Heroes and Heroines" stamps. Harlock was ranked fourth in Mania Entertainment's 10 Most Iconic Anime Heroes written by Thomas Zoth who commented that "as befitting his archetype status, Harlock has inspired many other manga and anime characters with his strong, stoic appearance and manner."
Several anime and manga characters have been, in some way, inspired by Matsumoto's creation. Naoko Takeuchi drew inspiration from Harlock's stoic qualities ("strong, silent, unshakeable") when designing the character of Tuxedo Mask, while Last Exile's Alex Row was modeled after the Captain. His basic character design is even thought to be a source of inspiration for Osamu Tezuka's manga character Black Jack. A parody of Harlock also appears in Project A-ko.Eternity Comics, an imprint of Malibu Comics, produced an American comic book series based on Captain Harlock. It was written by Robert W. Gibson and illustrated by Ben Dunn and Tim Eldred. The storyline allegedly started two years after the events in Arcadia of My Youth but ignores the events in Endless Road SSX while still borrowing elements from them. The comics discontinued in 1992 after it was discovered that Malibu did not have the rights to use Captain Harlock. Reportedly, the alleged representative for the rights to Harlock with whom Malibu exchanged money turned out to be fraudulent and was in no way connected to the rights holders.
In April 2008, Eight Peaks, a South Korean production company, announced that it had signed a joint production contract with Japan's Genome Entertainment to produce a live-action film based on Captain Harlock. Original creator Leiji Matsumoto expressed concern with the project, as neither company had approached him for consent to make the film.
Captain Harlock, or characters indistinguishable from him, have made frequent "unbilled cameo" appearances in many other works of Leiji Matsumoto, including Galaxy Express 999, Queen Emeraldas, and Galaxy Railways as the joker in a deck of playing cards.
Captain Harlock was originally intended to appear in Space Battleship Yamato during their return voyage from Iscandar. The idea was dropped for a number of reasons which probably included the fact that the rights to Yamato were at the time owned by executive producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki. This idea evolved into simply finding Mamoru Kodai (Alex Wildstar) alive on Iscandar. The idea was still used later in a Yamato manga by Matsumoto where Yamato later encounters Mamoru who assumed the false identity of Captain Harlock (as revealed when hero Susumu Kodai finds a copy of a Captain Harlock manga among his supposedly dead brother's belongings).
In 2001, Cosmo Warrior Zero presented a version of the story in which Captain Zero, a human veteran of the Earth-Mechanized war, is commanded by the Machine Men, who won the war and now rule Earth, to hunt down the Space Pirate who is still resisting the invaders. This series focuses on Zero and his misfit crew as they take on the hopeless mission, fighting a more skilled enemy who also may be more justified in his actions than they are. Harlock, Tochiro and Emeraldas put in mostly supporting guest appearances, and are shown as being slightly younger than their previous incarnations.
In the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay tabletop games, the legendary Rogue Trader Solomon Haarlock is presumably named after Captain Harlock and Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane. Another member of the Haarlock Dynasty, Erasmus Haarlock, bears a number of physical similarities to Captain Harlock: the long, wild hair, a missing right eye (a cybernetic replacement rather than just an eyepatch) and scars around his left eye.
In the episode "Space Booty" of Megas XLR, the villain is a parody of Harlock, his name even being Warlock. He invites Coop. Kiva, and Jamie onto his ship and tries to convince Kiva to stay with him and forget about her two friends.
Glenn Danzig would often wear a Captain Harlock skull and crossbones T-shirt when he played in The Misfits.
Electronic music producer, James Spinney, uses "DJ Harlock" as his alias for production and live performances, and is known for loosely using themes in his tracks that echo Matsumoto's work with Daft Punk.