The Jolly Roger flying proudly in outer space. A World War II battleship fitted with futuristic technology, on a mission to save Earth from annihilation. A 19th century locomotive that travels the cosmos. These are all iconic visions from Leiji Matsumoto. The legendary mangaka has created heroes such as Captain Harlock, Queen Emeraldas, the Queen of a Thousand Years, and the crew of Space Battleship Yamato (released in the U.S. as Star Blazers). His trademark style of square-jawed men, sylph-like women, and anachronistic technology is instantly recognizable. So are his themes of honor, idealism, and following your dreams.
I first became familiar with Matsumoto back in high school, through Anime Week on the Scifi Channel. This was a network event in which they showed an anime every night. Most of the movies were perfectly serviceable, with things blowing up and fanservice, but nothing to write home about. Galaxy Express 999 was different.
In this bildungsroman, a young orphan named Tetsuro Hoshino boards the 999 (Three-Nine), a locomotive that travels between planets. He leaves a hopeless existence on Earth in order to get a “machine body” and revenge on the cyborg who killed his mother. So cool. His guide on the adventure is Maetel, a beautiful, mysterious woman with many secrets.
On the surface, Galaxy Express (1980) is interplanetary space opera. Moreso, it’s just epic filmmaking, and deliriously cross-genre. A coming-of-age story that is both cosmic and whimsical, every frame stuffed with imaginary worlds. Space pirates, bandits, cowboys, flying castles, cyborg soldiers, rapiers that shoot lasers, and at the heart of it a boy’s self-discovery. Less Star Wars and more like The Little Prince, each planet offering a life lesson for Tetsuro. It is this sense of exploration that defines the best space opera; after all, I want to see Captain Kirk traveling to new worlds, not fist-fighting terrorists.
Along the journey, Tetsuro is helped and hindered by characters from Matsumoto’s pantheon. There is an ageless quality to these characters. Within the context of the film, they are legends. Every boy wants to be a famous outlaw like Captain Harlock. Every space traveler knows of Maetel. Besides this, the characters behave like they are mythic. Queen Emeraldas is cold and beautiful, eternally seeking her lost love. The engineer Tochiro dies, only to be reborn like a space age phoenix in the computer of the ship he built. Queen Prometheum is every fairy tale evil queen embodied in one dispassionate cybernetic face. Harlock comes into the narrative exactly when he’s needed, to save Tetsuro from bullying cowboys, offer platitudes about manhood, and, finally, go roaring into battle aboard his pirate ship, the Jolly Roger flag billowing epically, impossibly, in the vacuum of space. These characters enter the film with tons of backstory and no effort to catch up the viewer, as if their grand dramas have been underlying not only the movie, but the very fabric of anime itself. They harken to 20th century, and far older, heroic archetypes. By combining elements of medieval romance, fairy tale, and space opera, Matsumoto does nothing less than create modern myth.
The Leijiverse has no set continuity. Its consistency is in the characters. Old-school anime fans know his aesthetic. Handsome, square-jawed men with a lock of hair covering one eye. Tall women with the exact same heart-shaped face and long hair. Squat secondary characters with lumpy features, whom Matsumoto fans affectionately deem “potato people.” There is an iconic aspect even to these chibi characters; they are dwarves, sharing outer space with knights and elves. In every Leijiverse story, there will be a sake-loving doctor. There will be a cute cat walking around. There will be a weepy vulture crying over the wrongs of the world.
Meanwhile, the stories surrounding these characters are endlessly reinvented. You can try to figure out how Tochiro can have three different deaths. You can try to create a timeline where all the alien races that Harlock fights can somehow attack, conquer, and leave Earth in such quick succession. You can try to figure out why the alien La Miime is the last survivor of a devastated planet in the TV show, a victim of colonialism in the movie, and an outer space Rhine Maiden in the OVA. You will try, and you will fail. Backstories and events change from tale to tale.
This is entirely purposeful on the part of Matsumoto. Few genre writers feature multiple continuities as part of their creative vision. The character of Batman has been retconned to reflect changing times, but this is the work of separate creative teams. George Lucas is famous for retconning Star Wars, but every new edition makes the previous ones non-canon. With Matsumoto, there is no canon. This reflects the language of myth. Though there are many tales, nobody knows the true origin of Captain Harlock. The one certainty is that he will always be following his knightly code.
Archetypes congregate in Matsumoto’s chimerical universe. Take, for instance, his most famous creation, Space Pirate Phantom F. Captain Harlock the 99th. Harlock is part Romantic hero, part swashbuckler, and part samurai. Originally designed as a French privateer, he debuted as a cowboy in the 1972 western manga Gun Frontier. In Yamato, he shows up as the hero’s long-lost brother (a development that never made it into the TV series, but was explored in Matsumoto’s 1975 manga adaptation). Finally, in 1977, Matsumoto created the definitive version of the space pirate: an implacable, black-clad idealist who fights for freedom in his ship The Arcadia. A year later, the Harlock TV series debuted.
Matsumoto was, at the time, a television animator, and he embraced the opportunities that different mediums provided. Captain Harlack, Galaxy Express 999, and Queen Millennia were all turned into TV shows only a year after their serial runs began. The changes in medium help to illustrate different themes. For instance, the TV version of Galaxy Express 999 is a whimsical series of morality plays, while the movie is more science fiction, exploring themes of manhood.
The comic, television, and movie adaptations endlessly contradict each other. The characters are not people, so much as they are ideals inserted into different scenarios. Captain Harlock is just as comfortable in the straight-up space opera of the 1978 show as he is in Endless Odyssey, the recent horror-based remake.
It is interesting to note that Harlock is one of the few explicitly European heroes in anime. While the other characters on The Arcadia are identified as Japanese, Harlock boasts descent from German nobility; his WWII ancestor fought for the Axis. He is drawn realistically, at least compared to the more anime-like characters on his crew. As such, he is the embodiment of the Romantic ideal, a far future Sir Gawain. Oh, and did I mention that he never ages?
According to Matsumoto, “When I thought about showing images of war [in Yamato], I shrank a little and wondered if it would be a mistake. The animation I wanted to make was more in the style of fairy tales.” He began his career writing fairy tale comics, such as “Maria of the Silver Valley.” His stories exist as much in outer space as fairy tales exist in medieval Europe—in other words, not really. The surroundings become a liminal space in service to the story. Space travel becomes a metaphor for freedom and individuality.
The fairy tale influence is most evident in his female characters. The “Matsumoto woman” is elf-like. She is often a queen or princess, and has a magical aura. Also, she can be good or evil, and in her mystery represents the wonder and terror of following your ideals. In the 1978 Harlock series, the Mazone, a race of warrior women, are characterized as nymphs, sirens, the Snow Queen, witches, and other iconic females from fairy stories.
Matsumoto’s men are drawn from the epic/Romantic tradition. This is most obvious when Matsumoto substitutes Harlock for Siegfried in his adaptation of Das Rheingold. The women are drawn from the European fairy tales that Matsumoto read as a child. However, his comics are equally filled with Japanese tradition, the honor code of bushido informing his characters. Matsumoto grew up under the U.S. occupation; there is room in his universe for both western myths, and the national pride he feels was lost in defeat. For instance, the 1982 film Arcadia of My Youth (yet another Harlock origin story) is an allegory of the occupation. There are fistfights and laser battles and cyborg drones and green aliens, but the real villain is the apathy that Matsumoto saw in his countrymen.
Therein lies the advantage of multiple continuities. Instead of trying to connect with what came before, each work can focus squarely on its own themes: the nature of humanity in Galaxy Express, following your dreams in Yamato, fighting for your beliefs in Captain Harlock, the compromise of honor in Space Symphony Maetel. The flowering of the Leijiverse in the late 1970s allowed for an amazing level of redaction: movies based off TV shows based off comic books, comics based off TV shows, and, starting with the US adaptation of Yamato, Japanese space opera localized for Americans. Each reinterpretation offered a new way to explore grand themes.
“Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock, Queen Emeraldas, these works are all related to each other. All the major characters’ ancestors and descendants meet at some points. I constructed them so I can assemble all the stories in one. I write them as separate stories, but all the characters are inter-related.”-Leiji Matsumoto
Inter-related, but not continuous. The only Western author I can think of who did similar is Michael Moorcock, with his Eternal Champion books. The multiple versions of Harlock reflect champion incarnations like Elric and Hawkmoon. Like Moorcock, Matsumoto has a heavy focus on reincarnation. In Arcadia of My Youth, Harlock and Tochiro (through the power of SCIENCE!) access an ancestral memory. Apparently, their ancestors met and became friends during World War II. These forefathers look exactly like them, right down to the scars. The memory is integral to Harlock accepting his role as freedom fighter. He realizes that he is more than a man, so he dons the skull-and-crossbones, becoming who he was meant to be.
There have been efforts in recent years to reconcile the Leijiverse timelines, for some ridiculous reason. I’ve never understood the desire to turn mythology into tidy narratives. Nintendo did the same thing with The Legend of Zelda, ignoring the fact that subsequent heroes who look the same, act the same, and are all named Link is inherently unrealistic. Makes no sense. Yet they felt the franchise needed the realism of a set chronology. Sigh. I dunno.
The recent series Space Symphony Maetel served to bridge the gap between Queen Millenium, the Maetel/Emeraldas stories, and Galaxy Express 999. It is an average series, notable in that it is female-centric, but Harlock goes into battle against a freakin’ Death Star, so not much in the way of originality. The creators twist the story this way and that to make it all connect. It’s a mess. Continuity works for series with a linear narrative, not the interconnected legends that make up the Leijiverse.
Matsumoto is a perfect example of the potentialities in comics. The multiple continuities work alongside visual mythology. His stories are bold, colorful, and, most importantly, killer space opera. As testament to the mythology he created, more Matsumoto-based anime is still coming out, with younger artists exploring, reimagining, and telling new stories in the universe he built.