Ask John: What is Space Opera?

Question:
How exactly does one define Space Opera? Where did the term originate? I’ve heard Outlaw Star referred to as space opera, and I suppose that Gundam, Robotech, Harlock Saga and Cowboy Bebop are all space operas to an extent. Do the Japanese ever use the term space opera?

Answer:
For a definition of “space opera” I’ll refer to David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer’s historical analysis “How Sh*t Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera.” In brief summation, the phrase “space opera” was invented in 1941 by Wilson Tucker, who cited the Western as “horse opera,” the housewife domestic serial as “soap opera” and then referred to derivative, childish science fiction adventure stories as “space opera.” The term “space opera” remained a pejorative through the 1970s, but began to evolve when Del Rey Books began using the term as a marketing device to describe nostalgic sci-fi adventure. The success of Star Wars in the late 1970s and the advent of numerous skilled sci-fi writers in the 1980s that traced their influences to sci-fi pulps resulted in the phrase “space opera” taking on a positive reference to sci-fi tales of romantic adventure and interstellar conflict during the 1980s. Since then, the phrase “space opera” has come to refer to spectacular and adventerous stories set in outer space.

In that sense, as you’re proposed, anime series including Outlaw Star, Mobile Suit Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, and Space Pirate Captain Harlock are all examples of space opera. And although I don’t think it’s a term heard very often in Japan, the phrase “space opera” is definitely known and occasionally used in Japan. One of the best examples comes from Dirty Pair and Crusher Joe creator Haruka Takachiho who refers to the space opera in Japan in an interview with EX Magazine and is associated with the term in AnimEigo’s liner notes for Crusher Joe.

Taken to an even more literal sense, there are anime science fiction epics such as Captain Harlock, Ginga Sengoku Gun Yuuden Rai, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Space Battleship Yamato, and Five Star Stories that are literally operatic in their scope and scale, and adopt cues from classical Greek literature and Romantic opera.

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