Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 1

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 1



In my last column, I talked about the epic and fairy tale influences that appear in Leiji Matsumoto’s space opera. The design of his female characters is a notable fairy tale element; the “Matsumoto woman” is arguably the most distinct character design in anime, rivaled only by the “Miyazaki Girl” and the “Akira Toriyama Guy with Pointy Hair and Big Muscles.” Matsumoto’s women are tall, graceful, elfin, long-haired, and pretty much look exactly the same. This uniformity of design makes them seem not only a separate gender, but a separate species from the males. They seem magical, and, in Leijiverse stories, many of them are so. They are often royalty — Queen Millenia, Queen Promethium, Queen Emeraldas, Princess Starsha. They have great and unexplained powers. Their beauty enthralls the men around them. They can either be guides, companions, or witch-like enemies. Again, there is an element of the fairy tale to this. In fairy stories, women are inherently magical. Ordinary qualities such as beauty, goodness, and high birth take on supernatural properties (being able to feel a pea through a pile of mattresses is just for starters). Characters like Queen Emeraldas and Maetel become goddess figures, representing the glory and terror of following one’s dreams.

This is not to say there aren’t “normal” women in the Leijiverse. There is Kei Yuki, officer on the Arcadia. There is her Yamato equivalent, Yuki Mori. Then there is the aged cook on the Arcadia, mothering the pirates even as she chases pests with a rolling pin. But even these women take on epic qualities as their stories progress. In fact, the overarching storyline of the mythos is a centuries-spanning conflict between a mother and daughter. Though mostly secondary characters, women form the core of the mythos, and are key to the themes in Matsumoto’s work.

Bushido and Masculinity

Matsumoto’s comics, like most space opera, are male-centric. He specializes in the Bildungsroman, and his characters are invariably young boys learning how to be men. For instance, the viewpoint characters in Queen Millenia and Space Captain Harlock are not the titular heroes, but the audience avatars Hajime Amamori and Tadashi Daiba. Matsumoto takes the Bildungsroman to its apex in Galaxy Express 999, where the avatar finally becomes the main character. All three boys want revenge for the death of a parent. All three learn there is more to manhood than violence. All three find their guide in a larger-than-life character. This archetype is just as integral to Matsumoto’s worldview as the epic heroes: the lessons of the story must be realized through a down-to-earth, relatable person. There are differences in characterization (Hajime is pretty innocent, for instance, while Tetsuro in Galaxy Express is an efficient killer). But they all become heroes in their own right, by the end. And they are always boys.

Not only are the protagonists male, but the concept of maleness is key to the Leijiverse. After all, immediately after Daiba’s father is murdered, Harlock appears to keep him on track: “If you’re a man, you’ll do what you have to do before you grieve.” All sorts of pulpists have written all sorts of pulp about the manliest of manly characters, but few of them do the amount of proselytizing for masculinity as Matsumoto. In the various Harlock series, his ideal of manhood is reiterated to excess: honor, duty, self-sacrifice, active engagement with troubles. Though the word itself is never mentioned, Harlock’s ethos is in line with the samurai code of bushido.


This is particularly true in the show’s advocacy of death before dishonor. Harlock is possibly the worst strategist in all scifi, ramming headlong into the enemy without a second’s thought. There are male characters who compromise their honor, such as Zoll of Tokarga and Commander Kiruda, and they gain it back the only way they can—through noble self-sacrifice. Boys such as Daiba can doubt their paths. But true manhood is the self-assertion and certainty of bushido, as exemplified by the pirate-knight-samurai-cowboy Harlock.

Matsumoto’s version of bushido, like most things in our world, has its origins in World War II. In Showa Japan, the military equated bushido with the nation’s imperialist ambitions, inspiring soldiers to think of themselves as samurai. This included unwavering loyalty to the emperor. However, the bushido code has never been fixed. There is debate as to whether the concept existed prior to the modern era, when Japanese nationalists used it as a rallying cry against westernization. The fascist bushido of imperial Japan honors loyalty to institutions, something Matsumoto is against.

Of course, there is a definite nationalism to his work. Japan’s defeat obviously hit him hard. He was too young to fight for his country, but his comics are filled with nostalgia for World War II Japan, from the retrofitted space battleship Yamato to the gauges that adorn every spacecraft. I get the impression he sees this period as Japan’s glory days. He was raised to believe death with honor was a man’s duty, but grew up in a time when the army was defeated, the emperor powerless, the land occupied. The eternal villain in his stories is not robots or blue-skinned alien races, but submission. And Matsumoto sees the romanticized samurai as solution to the apathy around him.


Matsumoto’s work bears a twofold purpose when it comes to bushido. One, his comics and animations redefine the past. He equates fantastic futures to World War II, creating a version of the war in which the Japanese cause is unequivocally heroic. An example is Yamato, wherein the weaponry of the Pacific Theatre is used to save Earth. Another example is the film Arcadia of My Youth. In this origin story, Harlock enters the narrative as the epitome of bushido. The commanding officer of a ship in Earth’s fleet, he is the last soldier to surrender to invading aliens, and only because his ship is crippled. After crashing his ship, he continues his rebellion against the Illumidus, a thinly veiled analogue for the American occupiers. The only thing keeping Harlock from going out in a blaze of glory is his search for his wife, Maya. He never once doubts his decisions. Not when his eye gets shot out, nor when his comrades are threatened, nor when whole planets get destroyed. If he did, he would not be a man, and he would not be Harlock.


 Arcadia of my Youth is not about Harlock discovering his ethics. It is about him discovering the means by which he’ll follow those ethics. As the Earth government is a bunch of corrupt appeasers, he moves from soldiery to piracy. It is during his rebellion that Harlock and his friend Tochiro Oyama access a DNA memory of their ancestors’ first meeting during World War II. Needless to say, their ancestors look and act exactly like them. It is determined that their bloodlines have met at many points over the, say, thousand years since that first meeting. As I said in my last post, this is not lineage. This is reincarnation.


Harlock’s ancestor, the German fighter pilot Phantom F. Harlock II, does not agree with the Nazis. However, he fights because his family is sworn to the cause. Both ancestors agree the war is pointless and stupid, but honor is everything to them, so they fight. Harlock follows a Germanic knightly code, Oyama a samurai code. More important is the bond of brotherhood that the two men establish, a familial relation that persists beyond time and space. Since the futuristic characters and the WWII characters are reincarnations, the time periods are mashed together. Harlock’s struggle to maintain honor over surrender is, according to Matsumoto, the same struggle faced by Japanese during and after the war.

The reinvisioning of the Second World War goes beyond the Leijiverse mythos — his WWII manga The Cockpit is unabashed in its positive portrayals of Axis fighters. He champions kamikaze pilots, the most extreme example of the Japanese military’s co-opting bushido. By appropriating WWII for futuristic stories, he envisions a world in which those fighting on the Japanese side were paragons of honor. They carried a sense of purpose. He ignores the politics to portray soldiers as dedicated entirely to their vows. Horrors such as the Rape of Nanking and Korean slave labor are certainly possible, but only at the hands of aliens who have broken their honor. And, unlike in real life, his futuristic analogues win. This is a romanticized view of war, one which the anime industry would balk against with darker works like Macross and Gundam.


In addition to romanticizing the past through bushido heroes, Matsumoto also creates a template for the present. The nation’s demilitarization called for a whole new concept of Japanese manhood. What was once an imperial power was now becoming a technological power, and Matsumoto’s goal was creating bushido for a postwar world. This is most evident in the character of Tochiro. Famously based off of Matsumoto himself, he has the same “potato person” design developed to represent the everyman in his 1971 comic Otoko Oidon. Tochiro is short and not very good in a fight, but he never backs down when honor is at state. In both the Harlock movie and TV show, Harlock meets Tochiro by saving him from a beating. It is notable that in these stories, the bullies who beat Tochiro are occupying soldiers and cowboys, respectively. In other words, analogues for Americans.


But Tochiro also saves Harlock many times, because he is clever. His realm is that of the mind — he is the ultimate engineer, capable of building the Arcadia singlehandedly. Let me repeat that. He built the greatest space battleship the universe has ever seen, by himself, without anyone noticing. He is epic. Beowulf with a monkey wrench. While Harlock is the most European of anime characters, Tochiro is decidedly Japanese. It is mentioned in several continuities that he is a descendant of samurai. Through his courage and loyalty to the cause of freedom, Tochiro is as much a samurai as Harlock. He represents a Japan where the intellectual can achieve samurai status. And even if someone is not a fighter, they don’t have to surrender their cultural legacy. During the 1970s, Japan was having a renaissance in arts and sciences, spearheaded by creators such as Matsumoto himself. The Leijiverse is filled with engineers, doctors, and scientists who do whatever is in their power to fight for freedom. They are contrasted against feminized men who devote their time to leisure and gratification. With his space opera, Matsumoto sought to lead the young of Japan back to “following their dreams,” and it is clear he equates this to bushido. Of course, his work is universal, and his message about honor spread across the globe.


A man must choose death before dishonor. He must stay loyal to his comrades. He must also brave the unknown. In every Matsumoto story, there is the point in which the young man with the floppy hair must make the choice to go into space. Whether by battleship, pirate ship, or train, going to space symbolizes following one’s own path. This is necessary for manhood.

You may have noticed I haven’t said anything about women yet. That is because the role of women in the Leijiverse will require its own post. The fact that Harlock, the ultimate man, battles a race of women will probably require its own post. While male-centric, the Leijiverse has more powerful and brave women than many comparable space operas. Matsumoto is not just making simplistic nostalgia for a past that never was. Bushido is necessary for manhood, but one does not have to be man to live by it. The female characters demonstrate the complexities in living this code, and it is their triumphs (and failures) that raise his work to a higher level.


Read Part 2 here, and read Futuristic Myth: The Space Opera of Leiji Matsumoto here.

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Ilene Kaye

I’m finding this discussion fascinating. Looking forward to the next part.

Laurie Tom

I fell in love with Matsumoto’s characters in high school. I’m really enjoying this take on his work.

[…] [Read Part 1 of Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood here.] […]

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