The Japanese have accomplished miraculous economic growth and have an abundance of material things, but as a result there is pollution and high prices, and we’re far from leading happy lives. We are all just helpless cogs in the machine of the industrial world, especially when it comes to the material aspects of our lives. Will we find a way out of this predicament? History will allow us to determine this.
Thirty-some years later, still relevant words. I would love to hear Matsumoto’s thoughts on our current mechanization: our attachment to technology, our GMO foods, the surveillance culture that is growing daily. In the seventies, he was writing about fantastical apocalypses. Smack dab in the middle of our man-made apocalypse, the world needs space pirates more than ever.
For this series, I’ve been doing a bit of a Matsumoto re-watch. Nothing serious, just an episode here and there. I’ve been watching Galaxy Express 999. Make no mistake, this is Matsumoto’s Sistine Chapel. All of his themes are wrapped up in this fairy tale, but one is central: human potential over the dehumanization of industry, as represented by the Machine Empire. It is also the story he most wanted to tell, dreaming up fairy stories while the market demanded war tales.
Out of kindness, I’m not going to do episode reviews. GE 999 is over a hundred episodes long, and is the kind of show that should not have been. Its message of embracing humanity is so heavy-handed that Tetsuro’s desire for a machine body makes no sense by the twentieth episode. Other morals are just as preachy, and some of the plots are pretty out there. (I’m thinking of that episode where there’s a flying cat, and he’s so special that all the robot cats sacrifice themselves for him, and they live on an anti-cat planet, and the cat walks off into space, or something like that.) No continuity. Plotlines are recycled. Episodes commonly end in Deus ex Machina (Deus ex Maetel?). Once you get into the show, you can roll with its brand of silliness, but sometimes it’s a slog.
One episode that stood out was 107, “The Bird-Man of Kilimanjaro.” In this one, Tetsuro and Maetel visit a planet populated by knights at war. This excites the would-be samurai Tetsuro, who gushes over how people lived with chivalry during the early 20th century. These knights fly WWI biplanes, and at first are the emblems of knighthood. While Tetsuro oohs and ahhs over their dogfights, Maetel is noticeably saddened by the loss of life. Then it turns out the knights on one side are elitists who put themselves above commoners. The enemies are cold-blooded killers who gun down a child. Ultimately, there is little distinction between the two sides. Tetsuro learns about the class distinctions that lead to the killers called knights.
This is Matsumoto questioning chivalry’s very origins. While he champions bushido, he is also challenging it. The master challenges his own nostalgia—the biplanes and iron crosses that show up in his work are the shields that autocrats and cowards hide behind. Yet, in a way, he is also playing it safe, couching his critique in European images. I can’t picture Matsumoto doing the same story with samurai instead of knights. In order to recreate bushido for a new generation, he has to keep his nationalism intact.
This misdirection extends to his use of female characters. In the real world, the most well-intentioned person will sacrifice honor when left with no real options. And they must live with the consequences. Which leads me to . . .
The Evil Queen
Above is Queen Lafresia from Harlock, decked out in her best disco jumpsuit to battle for the fate of the Earth. Harlock is just as much her story as it is the titular character’s. While Harlock’s is a journey through honor, hers is a tragic fall. The proud queen of a warrior race, her first taste of defeat leads her on the path to disgrace. A true samurai will take death before besmirching their name, whereas Lafresia vows to go down as “the most merciless queen in history” if that means beating the pirates. Honor comes up in many of her conversations with Harlock, over the course of their “will you guys just kiss already” rivalry.
Allow me to take a break from the academic discourse to point out how cool the Leijiverse is. Seriously. Space swashbucklers striking poses and swinging around laser rapiers. Let’s double down on that:
That’s a shot from Space Symphony Maetel, a recent addition to the mythos. What’s unique about it is a) the attempt to tie the stories together by bridging Queen Millennia to Galaxy Express 999, and b) it is the first series with Maetel as central protagonist. Until this point, she has been the alluring figure adored by Tetsuro, the protagonist of 999. Here she takes center stage as daughter, sister, and revolutionary.
The show is . . . alright. It has cute kids and cute robots and some themes of class warfare. But halfway through, it bogs down in a typical “us vs. the evil empire” story, and the heroes fight a Death Star. Oh, they call it something else. But it’s a Death Star.
Also, it doubles down on the idea of the Machine Empire as a marauding military power. The empire was more interesting in the seventies when they got their power from people voluntarily going robot. Less an invader than a megacorporation promising eternal youth. That nuance is lost.
What the show does right is centering on the central conflict in the Leijiverse . . . Maetel versus her mother, Queen Promethium.
This is one reason why the Leijiverse, while being male-centric, is remembered for the dynamism of its females. The uber-narrative is a centuries-spanning conflict between mother and daughter. Maetel at first seems like Queen Titania, a true fairy figure. In truth, she’s Hamlet, caught up in her oedipal tragedy. Adding to the tragedy is Promethium herself, because in another life she was Yayoi, the millennial queen who sided with Earth. (And is there a matrilineal term for oedipal? If not, I vote for promethial.)
How does Yayoi go from princess to evil queen? Because of her actions in Queen Millennia. She spares Earth, but still has to keep her people alive through eternal winter. Machine bodies do the job. In other words, she can’t win.
The Evil Queen represents what happens when bushido fails. She is a wretched creature bereft of honor. When her planet starts growing cold, Yayoi takes the easy way out by having her subjects mechanized. In turn, she loses her humanity. This is one of Matsumoto’s clearest fairy tale parallels—Promethium’s death-mask face and dark robe even looks like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.
The scary thing about the evil queen is that any princess can become her. In many Leijiverse stories, it is hinted that Maetel will follow her mother’s path. Scholars have theorized that the evil queen/stepmother trope represents the fear of growing up. Eventually, Snow White will hit puberty and become the vain stepmom who must don the red-hot shoes or get a millstone dumped on her head. Other scholars have tied the trope to the historical fact of high mortality rates; in medieval Europe, there wasn’t much for women to do besides be mothers, so the competition between them was fierce. In the Leijiverse, the queen trope is brought to its roots; Yayoi is a birth mother, just like Snow White’s queen was before the Brothers Grimm sanitized the story. And unlike her apple-slinging sister in evil, she wants the princess to succeed her. Matsumoto’s evil queen represents not so much a fear of aging, but of losing honor. Maetel wants to be a loving individual, not the ruler of bored and nihilistic cyborgs.
The outlier in this equation is Maetel’s sister, Emeraldas. Oh, excuse me. Queen Emeraldas. A lady so awesome she travels in a spaceship named after herself. Emeraldas is stalwart and unyielding, loyal to her friends. She stands down from no challenge, whether it be aliens or her own mother. She is a scar-faced pirate who can brood with the best of ‘em. In short, she is the female Harlock. She exists to demonstrate the feminine bushido. It seems that, in every story, her role is to show up and broodily explain to people how they’re acting without honor, laser blasting a few folks along the way. However, she is still very female; in the Harlock series, she uses feminized speech, and is a mother on top of it. Some of you yaoi fans will note the fact that Tochiro ends up with her adds all sorts of Freudian dimensions to his relationship with Harlock.
The sisters are two halves of a whole. One is cold, the other affectionate. One unyielding, the other conflicted. One leads through example, the other through inspiring love. Even their appearance is intrinsic to the fairy tale. Maetel is blond, always wears winter clothes, and is migratory. Emeraldas is redhaired, nautical, and martial. In short, Maetel is Germanic, Emeraldas is Celtic, encompassing two major strands of European folklore.
If you want to know the character of Maetel, Space Symphony is not the show to watch. Watch 999. She is at turns wise, kind, otherworldly, pacifist, a tough fighter (that laser whip!), and sad. Maetel is Matsumoto’s ultimate Beautiful, Mysterious Woman. Of all these women, her ambiguity lasts the longest. Viewers get no inkling of her endgame until the last ten episodes. According to P.L. Travers, “[I]t should be remembered that no Wise Woman or Fairy is herself good or bad; she takes on one aspect or another according to the laws of the story and the necessity of events. The powers of these ladies are equivocal. They change with changing circumstances; they are as swift to take umbrage as they are to bestow a boon; they curse and bless with equal gusto. Each Wise Woman is, in fact, an aspect of the Hindu goddess, Kali, who carries in her multiple hands the powers of good and evil.”
Matsumoto uses the ambiguous nature of the fairy to do something truly subversive. In the end, Tetsuro’s guide figure turns out to be an epic hero on her own quest. She transports young boys on the Galaxy Express in order to turn them into living machine parts for her home planet. Horrific stuff. It’s all part of a plot to have them in place for when she detonates them, blowing up Planet La Metal. In other words, Maetel is not Gandalf the kindly figure, but Gandalf as he actually appears in Lord of the Rings: a ruthless general who is willing to sacrifice as many Hobbits as it takes to win the day.
(By the way, one reason I don’t like the notion of linearity is because, if so, Maetel betrays her mother four or five times. Yayoi keeps accepting her back into the fold, only to get burned by her prodigal once more. No villain is that stupid. It’s more palatable if everything is taken as an individual story. Then again, Yayoi is myopic when it comes to her daughter.)
In the 999 climax, the feminine is once again equated to failure. Maetel cannot throw the locket/bomb that will set off the machine parts. She stops just short of true matricide. In both TV and film, Tetsuro has no such qualms. Considering that bomb contains the spirit of Hajime, the boy from Queen Millennia, the climax is two generations of boys restoring bushido to the universe, while in the sky Captain Harlock roars into battle as a golden wave of masculinity. Men save the day because that is what true men do. But they would not have been able to do so had the woman not compromised her honor for the greater good.
Sometimes we falter. Sometimes we fail. We lie and compromise and hurt those we love and sometimes we don’t have a choice. That is Maetel’s story. Matsumoto knows that the samurai code is not an actual possibility, but an ideal to strive for, and it is acknowledging this that sets his work apart from the usual good vs. evil claptrap.
Maetel is faced with the same decision as her mother: real family (Yayoi) versus adopted family (the rest of the universe). Who wins? Definitely not the millions of young boys she turned into hardware. However, in choosing the hard path, she does not go the same route as Yayoi, which is in itself a victory.
I ran a panel on “Women in the Leijiverse” at Fanimecon last year. One audience member proposed that Maetel’s actions could be construed as honorable, just a different type of honor than the “I will die before besmirching my name” type Harlock ascribes to. I agreed that it could be, honor being an abstract concept. But I noted that, in this universe, Harlock would never have to make the decisions Maetel makes. Thanks to Plot Armor, he can choose death before dishonor every time. This is feature, not flaw. It wouldn’t make sense if you put Conan into the Song of Ice and Fire series. Or if you put one of those magical detectives from Law & Order: Whatever into The Wire. By putting everything on such an epic scale, Matsumoto finds a way for the ideal samurai to exist alongside the realistic soldier.
Because bushido is necessary for manhood, men can falter on their way to bushido. It is women who fail. While this speaks to some sexism on Matsumoto’s part, the feminine is still championed as a pathway to bushido. I am reminded of the Mazone’s scenes in Harlock. They are women who act traditionally masculine: ordering each other around, talking over each other, and pledging undying fealty to their queen in scenes reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl. On the other hand, we have the crew of the Arcadia, who talk with each other, show concern, and value personal honor over institutional loyalty. Male characters like Daiba and Zero demonstrate the humility commonly associated with the feminine. In the Leijiverse, this is better than aggressive masculinity. There is also, of course, La Miime, the most demure character on the ship . . . and the most powerful.
Lafresia leads millions of her soldiers to their death, and even murders civilians when they defect. The irony is that Maetel sacrifices just as many minions, yet she is a supposed “good guy.” Since Matsumoto writes a complicated world, is there room for even an evil queen to be honorable?
To be continued . . .
Read Elwin’s previous article “Futuristic Myth: The Space Opera of Leiji Matsumoto” here.